Despite My Previous Anti-Christian Assertions…

A Google search on christian buddhism brought me to this and this and this.  There’s both a lot of relief and negativity in evidence in the comments to these articles.  Personally, I understand both sides of the equation.

I don’t think it’s possible actually to be a 50/50 Christian-Buddhist or Buddhist-Christian, even if you are one of the mystical sorts of Christians.  Fundamentally, Buddhists and Christians differ pretty strongly in respect to that which is of transcendental concern and the differences between the two families of views cannot really be papered over.  Buddhism generally denies a metaphysical ground or source, which denial marks a huge non-starter for anything that reasonably could be categorized as ‘Christian’.  Having said that, however, there are some Buddhist sects that view the ultimate reality as being Mind (huge contentious discussion, I know, but let’s not get into it now) and so actually approximate something like the theism that they are doctrinally required to reject – even so, their ultimate reality of Mind is worlds apart from the God of Christianity, even in His more mystical articulations.  For instance, the Buddhists’ ubiquitous Mind/Awareness/etc. remains decidedly impersonal, while even the mystical Christians’ God has elements of volition, personality, etc. (granted, of distinctly different kind than those of humans).  These are particularly sticky problems and cannot simply be brushed under the rug.

Stained glass Padmasambhava (click to embiggen).
Source: http://www.yulokod.ca/limited_edition-2.htm

Moreover, there is obviously a lot of hurt that motivates the negative comments on these posts.  People who perhaps had bad experiences with Christianity or its representatives but who retained their spiritual hunger (which is being fed by Buddhism) would, quite naturally, view the entire religion with a jaundiced eye (indeed, most atheists are of this sort too).  Then there are those who simply have great distaste for what is familiar or a mild-to-extreme valuing of what is foreign, whatever the genesis of these feelings (see la wik: cultural cringe, oikophobiaxenophily, xenocentrism).  To such people, any attempt to forge a synthesis or bring Jesus into Buddhism pushes all the wrong buttons – Buddhism was supposed to be their escape from all that.

And then, of course, there are fervent, fundamentalist convert Buddhists as well (Namdrol of E-Sangha comes to mind).

Tibetan-ish Jesus in Gethsemane (click to embiggen).
Source: http://indigenousjesus.blogspot.ca/2012/04/gethsemane.html

But the negative comments seemed also to be missing the point of what the author was getting at, which really wasn’t that Christianity and Buddhism ought to merge into some perfect synthesis of the two.  Rather, his point (which I thought was fairly obvious) is that as Westerners we will have some degree of resonance with the morals, myths, and cultural containers (e.g. art, architecture, music) of our heritage and that this is something that Buddhism will have to accommodate itself to if it is truly to become rooted in Western soil.  I fully agree with that thesis even though I, raised in an atheist household, do not and never did believe Jesus to be God or any of the other stuff that goes with Christian belief.  Still, as an archetype of forgiveness and compassion, Jesus speaks far more powerfully to me than Tara and John the Baptist may speak to some Westerners as a more appropriate meditational figure for purification than Vajrasattva.  Nor does the process necessarily need be entirely about Christianity, either.  I have elsewhere expressed some interest in buddhizing Halloween (which I have been meaning to do a follow-up on).  And the Grim Reaper surely must be capable of being put to meditational use?

I love this so much, my print looks awesome on the wall (click to embiggen).
Source: http://www.etsy.com/listing/66376822/gothic-macabre-art-print-the-grim-reaper

The ironic thing about this is that both certain Western xenophiles and Asian cultural conservatives will fight tooth and nail against such a process taking place, even though it is exactly the same process (insofar as history does not repeat, it rhymes) as the synthesis of pre-Buddhist Tibetan folk-religion with Buddhism or of Kwan-Yin’s transformation from goddess to Bodhisattva.

Some Things About Christianity That Turn Me Off (Part 1 of…?)

I have never been a Christian, myself, but I have certainly known many who are and who have tried to inform me of the “Good News”.  Disappointingly (for them), the “Good News” never did manage to take root in my heart (as my readers might have surmised) but that’s not necessarily because there’s no appeal to it.  Surely I’m not the only atheist out there who at least finds the idea – that, despite our faults, the biggest superstar in the whole world still thinks I’m awesome enough to be worth giving a pass to the VIP room – to be a little appealing?  Still, beyond the matter of my suspecting the factual falsity of Christian doctrine, there have been other aspects of Christian belief and practise (across the various strains of it) that turn me right off of that religion.  Here are two:

Holiness

Holiness: I really do not like the emphasis that Christianity places on holiness (in this way it is not alone among religions).  The way holiness is pursued and thought of generally tends to be a dull, dry affair that denies the value of our human life and emotions and tends to asceticism.  Holiness divides the world up into ‘holy’ (good) and ‘profane’ or ‘unholy’ (the category of all that is not holy, whether neutral or evil) in a way that just does not make sense to me.  For example, take the human body.  It is considered a profane thing and, indeed, as something that is shameful and needing to be covered.  As I always say, “if God had wanted us to be naked, we would have been born that way!”  The body simply is what it is, and doesn’t need to prove a source of disgust or rejection.  And if Christians take Genesis seriously, how they may then conclude that nudity is a bad thing escapes my understanding (remember, Adam and Eve were nude until after they had defied God’s will and eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). Sex is also often used as an example, for good reason (it is one of the things most humans want a lot and enjoy a lot), but is viewed as less than perfectly ‘holy’ by many Christians.  Now, while I will agree with Christians that a totally unfettered approach to sex probably (but only probably) is a vice – as exciting as they are, I’m not completely sure that ‘free love’ and pornography are or have been untainted net ethical gains for society or for those individuals who participate in them – Christians generally, I think, go too far the other way.  Marriage is widely considered the only context in which sexual expression is appropriate (which I just think false) and the sexual lives of Christ and the saints (which is to say, the absence of same) are held up as ideal exemplars – so even if sex within marriage is OK, complete celibacy is best.  I think that this approach denies something important about human nature and also doesn’t make sense.  Eating too much candy is a vice, surely, so the appropriate thing to do with candy is to eat it in sensible portions at a sensible frequency, not to avoid the stuff altogether or to revile ourselves for merely wanting it.

Why not?

Love: Christians often go on about Love, but I don’t like that sort of talk at all.  For many, but especially liberal Christians, Love is a sticky-gooey sentimentality towards others that, frankly, icks me right out.  Partly, this is temperamental, in that I dislike all this ‘peace and love and harmony’ claptrap, but it is also the case that there are people and things in the world that genuinely are problems and reprehensible and deserving of our allergic reactions to them.  Conservative Christians, on the other hand, hardly seem to concern themselves with Love at all (Justice and wrath are more their bag), but when they do they seem weirdly aggressive about it.

In What Way Is ‘Liberal Christianity’ Christian?

In many ways, Matthew Fox is a perfect example of liberal Christianity.*

(I have been given a raft-full of inspiration by several bloggers’ posts.  This is inspired by one of them.)

I have never quite understood what it is about ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ Christianity (it hardly matters which term one favours) that is particularly ‘Christian’, at least in any sense of ‘Christian’ that has some historical validity.

Of course, liberal Christianity very definitely maintains that Jesus is important, but without really making a good case for why.  He isn’t God, for example – he’s just a very wise man.  But then, if he is just a wise man, it isn’t precisely clear why we ought to give his pronouncments a greater weight than those of Socrates or Confucius (to name two).  And he does seem awfully anti-family, in many ways.  But his being a wise man (and not God) also completely eliminates the nearly 2000 year old [1] consensus on just what Chrisitianity is about.  For instance, if Jesus is not God, then his death on the cross is a random event without meaning or purpose.  Salvation is no longer connected to this man and must come through other means.

That is, if salvation is necessary.  Most liberal Christians steadfastly deny that there is such a thing as a fallen nature or original sin – or, if they do acknowledge these, they also are at pains to point out ‘original blessing’ or some cognate term.  The overwhelming majority of liberal Christians (as based on my conversations with them) seem to think that if there is a hell, it is reserved solely for the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots of the world.  A significant portion (most even?) seem not to believe that there is a hell, while a large minority (I’d guess, 25%) don’t even think that there is an afterlife.  All of which is fine – but it is unclear what, in a historical sense, makes these views particularly ‘Christian’.

Liberal Christianity does not take the moral pronouncements of its founders at all seriously.  Saint Paul comes in for some (richly deserved, in my opinion) criticism from liberal Christians, who take his opinions (and those of the vast majority of Christians throughout history) to be of little value when compared with our post 1960s morality.  There are no particular obvious moral imperatives in liberal Christianity beyond exuding a certain kind of politically correct ‘niceness’.

Indeed, they don’t even take their own tradition that seriously – many seriously entertain the idea that “all paths lead to God” (an idea so absurd that it requires no refutation).  If that is true, why even call oneself ‘Christian’?

I know that I’ve built something of a strawman here, but I think I’m not terribly off-base.  What I wonder is whether anyone out there can tell me what about liberal ‘Christianity’ merits its being called this, instead of ‘Niceism’? [2]

Endnotes:

[1] Or approximately 1700 year old, depending on which church council one believes things to have gone off the rails at.

[2] Just to be clear, I don’t have any grand problems with Niceism (though it’s much too saccharine for my taste).  I think the world could do with a little more niceness.

[*] I found this bookcover after posting, and I think it fits the topic better than the last one.

The Curious Case of Western Atheism

The atheism of Westerners is a curious phenomenon, in that it is constitutively dependent for its coherence upon the cultural and ideological structures laid down by Christianity.  I have heard some express this notion by saying that it is ‘parasitic’ upon theism, but I think that this is an unnecessarily hostile way of saying the same thing.  Atheists may at this point answer that, of course, atheism wouldn’t exist if theism also did not, but to think in this way is to miss the point.  It is trivial to point out that without theism atheists wouldn’t exist, but the claim I am making is more substantive than this – Western atheism draws many of its intellectual, moral, and activist imperatives from Christianity.

How is this so?  Historically speaking, Christianity has been greatly concerned with truth and fact.  Atheists will scoff at this assertion, but it is true.  Owing to the fact that the Christian faith depends crucially on the historical fact of Jesus’ living, his dying on the cross, and his later resurrection (else no salvation), Christianity has always been centrally concerned that what it holds true can be supported by the evidence.  This is in contrast to other religious traditions that are more ‘loose’ about the literalness of aspects of their faith – Buddhists, for instance, can sometimes be remarkably cavalier (from a Western perspective) about the historicity of Buddha, the authorship of their sutras, or the reality/unreality of the yidams of tantric practices.  ‘Truth’ and the knowledge of it became highly valuable in the Christian world – indeed, valuable enough that to know the truth was more important that preserving the faith (all of this has been said far more wittily by Nietzsche, though I cannot recall where to point an interested reader to).

Thus, the Western atheist’s infatuation with knowing the ‘truth’ about the world is born from Christianity’s fixation upon proving the ‘truth’ of Jesus’ biography.  This manifests itself in fascinating ways in the atheist community.  For instance, the activism of modern atheists (like Dawkins, Dennett, the late Mr. Hitchens, and Harris) seems far more focused on evangelizing theists (even utterly inoffensive ones) about the unreality of God, rather than attempting to mobilize for substantive political changes that will make the world a safer place for atheists and other dissenters from theistic faiths.  The bus ads bought up in London a couple of years back had an important message, but reveal the concern for ‘truth’ over praxis.  I have often marvelled that influential atheists haven’t tried to mobilize campaigns to get respected individuals out of the closet with their unbelief, to address religiously motivated extremism that is permitted free reign in religious institutions, or to vocally criticise attempts to establish in Western countries parallel legal structures based in religious doctrines.  Granted, they talk about these sorts of things, but there hasn’t been any visible action on such matters.

Of course, it could be objected that they are attacking the problem at its root.  This is a bad objection, however, because it suffers from two flaws.  First, the suggestion is that if we can just change everyone’s mind, everything will be fine thereafter.  But this is both unrealistic – it is doubtful that belief in God/gods will ever vanish.  Second, this is an example of the Nirvana fallacy (better known by Voltaire’s observation that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”).  Sure, it might be great to live in an atheist society, but we do not, and working towards effecting changes such as the ones I have suggested will make the society better immediately.

Contrary to Agressive Atheists and Their Theistic Counterparts,…

can be both an atheist and an agnostic.  It has been claimed by at least one theist of whom I am aware that he appreciates atheists because they at least have strength of their convictions, whereas he finds agnostics to be too wishy-washy.  Of course, a sentiment such as this makes perfect sense coming from a man of faith – he recognizes and admires firm belief in the face of doubt, even if that belief directly contradicts his own.  [1]  And I am personally acquainted with many atheists who would agree with this pastor that agnosticism is an unacceptable form of cowardice because it is obviously the case that there is no God. 

But I must demur.  I think both of these positions can be taken up by the same person, because they have different domains – atheism is a doxastic (i.e. belief related) position, while agnosticism is an epistemic (i.e. knowledge related) matter.  It is true that I do not believe that Christianity is true (or, more strongly, I believe that it is false), and I believe that I have good reasons for saying so.  But I also think that I do not and cannot know that there is nothing at all that exists which is invisible to us and which might well be something that is deserving of the appellation of ‘God’ or ‘The Absolute’ or somesuch.  [2]  So I don’t see these positions as incompatible.

Endnotes:

[1] This reminds me of an old story about my great-grandfather that has been passed down in family lore.  He (British) fought in the trenches in WWI and had the following to say about Frenchmen and Germans.  Paraphrased: “give me a German over a Frenchman any day: at least you know the German’s not going to run.”

[2] Granted, the falsity of Christianity is something that can be more definitively assigned to the realm of knowledge because it posits miracles and interventions by God in the natural world – for example, I am fairly certain that I know that there has never been a virgin birth.  Other positions are firmly out of the realm of knowledge, however.  For instance, deism is precisely the sort of position that I literally cannot make any knowledge claims about.