So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras (Part 11 of a 13-Part Series)
I would like now to reflect on why, contrary to all evidence, so many people are addicted to this notion that the Gospel and Dhamma are simply two ways of saying the same thing. Specifically, I’d like to discuss what I call the phenomenon of the “religious chimera.”
As told by Homer in the Iliad (VI: 213-15), the chimera was a
grim monster sprung of the gods, nothing human,
all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between,
terrible, blasting lethal fire at every breath!
In other words, the ultimate concoction of unlikely parts, a quite unnatural fantasy. And that is exactly how a “Christian-Buddhist” or “Theistic Buddhist” or, for that matter, a Pro-gun/Pro-lifer or Creation Scientist, appears to me. All are combinations of disparate, even contradictory parts. Like, how do you stick a goat on the back of a lion? And, how can you happily shoot to kill and say you value life? I am sure George Orwell would have something to say about this. (Doublethink, anyone?)
It is possible some readers will find the following two posts inflammatory, even insulting. I want to assure those of you who incline toward such feelings that that is not my intent. I really am puzzled when something that appears so blatantly, so obviously wrong to me, is yet embraced so wholeheartedly by someone else and defended as perfectly reasonable. In most cases I can brush it off as due to the muddy aspect of reality; it is difficult for anyone to see everything, especially when few (myself included) are truly expert in anything.
But as regards Buddhism I feel I have gotten to a certain point where if something is flagrantly wrong I’ll know it, which is why I’ve bothered writing almost seventeen thousand words to date arguing against Christian-Buddhism. (And this is not including my much earlier posts, not part of this series.) The question then is, assuming I am correct and people like Mr. MacPherson wrong, why are they wrong? What are the mental errors they persist in that defeat their best efforts at insight into a subject they claim to respect and understand?
I’ve read quite a few Christian-Buddhist essays and posts and so feel I have a reasonable sense of their arguments; I even had a friend who subscribed to this position. With no disrespect intended, I can honestly say though that in every case—that is, in every essay I’ve read, in every argument heard and defense considered—I’ve seen a repeated pattern, which is to say, every proponent of Christian or Theistic Buddhism suffers from the following ailments to one degree or another:
- lack of familiarity with source texts (specifically the Pali suttas)
- lack of understanding of these texts even when they have read them
- lack of significant practice of meditation or results from meditation
- lack of acquaintance with friends and teachers who have attained some stage of the path
- excessive attachment to their “home” tradition (i.e. Christianity)
- (mis)interpretation of that home tradition as fundamentally “mystical” or “contemplative”
In other words, their errors lie on both sides of the equation, though far more on the Buddhist as opposed to Christian side. Note, however, that not everyone suffers in equal degrees from all of these ailments. It is even possible, for example, that someone could be quite advanced in meditation (especially the jhanas) and yet still be possessed of numerous wrong views. Let’s, however, take a brief look at each of these points.
- Lack of familiarity with source texts (specifically the Pali suttas). Going by what he’s written about himself, Mr. MacPherson does not seem to suffer from this ailment. I do have the sense though that he has not well “digested” what he’s read, for supporting references to the Pali suttas are almost entirely absent from his posts. (I think there was one, maybe two.) But with other people this has always been the case; usually if they are familiar with anything it is the Mahayana scriptures which, with their mystical, substantialist metaphysics, can be easily meshed with strains of Christian mysticism. (Think Thomas Merton’s affiliation with Zen, or D.T. Suzuki’s book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.) There is also a tendency to uncritically mix up Buddhist scriptures, to quote now the Lotus Sutra and then the Sattipatthana, as though each was an equally valid rendering of the Buddha’s teaching. (They aren’t.)
- Lack of understanding of these texts even when they have read them. This is universal. I’ve never met or read anyone with theistic stripes who had better than a muddled grasp of the suttas. Even for a Pali scholar, a deep seated faith in the God of Abraham acts as a kind of short circuit in their efforts to grasp the Buddha’s word. Reference my discussion of Vacchagotta in post #1 of this series.
- Lack of significant practice of meditation or results from meditation. Specifically, insight (vipassana) meditation. Essentially, once you’ve got first path (sotapanna) you should be permanently freed from any belief in a God such as you find in the Bible, for you’ve directly seen impermanence, not-self and dukkha; the monotheistic faiths will simply no longer hold any interest for you. However, you could have the jhanas up the yin-yang and still suffer all sorts of deluded beliefs. The Buddha battled those kinds of contemplatives his whole life (as you’ll know if you’ve read the suttas).
- Lack of acquaintance with friends and teachers who have attained some stage of the path. This basically follows on the one above. Almost everyone with attainment on the path will have association with those who have done likewise, though occasionally you get those solitary geniuses who figure it out on their own or read a book or two and then follow the instructions and get it. I am not one of those, however, and I’ve not yet met anyone who is either.
- Excessive attachment to their “home” tradition (i.e. Christianity). Such attachment is a veritable death knell to progress in Dhamma. It’s a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. The result is that a person ends up asserting mutually contradictory ideas at the same time without noticing they are in conflict, an acute form of intellectual dishonesty or “doublethink.” This phenomenon is rife among the more intelligent members of homo sapiens. In fact, a certain degree of intelligence is necessary to fall into this trap. What I am talking about, of course, is the human addiction to views (ditthi) that is a constant topic in the suttas.
- (Mis)interpretation of that home tradition as fundamentally “mystical” or “contemplative.” All Christian Buddhists are would-be mystics at heart. They believe Christianity is a mystical religion, that Jesus taught a contemplative path. The truth of this is neither yes nor no, but somewhere in between. As regards what Jesus “really” taught, all we have is what’s been preserved in the Gospels, and unfortunately claims by and about him—that he was the God of the Old Testament, was “crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, and rose again on the third day” (the Apostle’s Creed)—are either unverifiable or unrepeatable or both. Inasmuch as these beliefs constitute what has to be called the barest core of Christianity—mere Christianity as C.S. Lewis famously called it—we can safely say that Christianity is first and foremost a supernatural ideology, a belief system one either affirms or denies. These beliefs, however, qua beliefs, are not mystical; they are simply fantastical assertions about reality. Mysticism, however—or “contemplative spirituality” as we might more accurately call it—is concerned with the training of specific aspects of consciousness, such as moral choice, attention, the close observation of mental states and concentration, all in pursuit of non-ordinary states of awareness. This definition applies to all contemplative traditions (including Buddhist), regardless of their associated beliefs or stated aims. Christianity certainly has a rich and vibrant contemplative tradition, but the ideology at its core is not inherently contemplative, which is why it is possible to be a Biblical literalist and not a contemplative. In fact, most fundamentalists are hostile to contemplative traditions, including Christian! (As Protestants are fond of saying, mysticism “begins in mist, ends in schism, and has I in its middle.”) On the other hand, try imagining someone affirming the truth of the Pali suttas and not being a contemplative at least in orientation—difficult, isn’t it?
To claim, then, as Mr. MacPherson did in his original comments on my blog, that “the Bible is a mystical document, and… describes a contemplative path,” is to claim, quite arbitrarily, that only the mystical tradition in Christianity is the “mature thing…the real thing” and that non-mystical Christianity (that is 90% of what Christians have believed and practiced) is “a tribal-Christian position”. While I agree that unverifiable ideologies are prone to fostering dogmatic (i.e. “tribal”) attitudes and behaviors, to select one rarified strand of Christianity (i.e. the contemplative) and affirm that as the one and only true Christianity, has to appear to the billions of non-mystical Christians as a rather high-handed, naïve, and arrogant thing to do.
(I would never, for instance, claim that mantra-chanting, drum-pounding Pure Land Buddhists are not Buddhist or that they are necessarily “tribal” or inauthentic in their Buddhist-ness. I would claim, however, that their version of Buddhism has no textual connection to what the historical Shakyamuni actually taught and that by their practices and beliefs they are unlikely to ever attain what he encouraged his disciples to attain. [In fact, Pure Land Buddhism is predicated upon the notion that enlightenment is no longer possible or at least highly impracticable in this world.] In saying this I would, moreover, have a wealth of scriptural data to back me up. Anyone who maintains that Christianity is contemplative or mystical, however, is going to be hard pressed to produce passages from the Bible discussing the development of concentration or altered states of consciousness because there aren’t any.
P.S: Paul’s reference to his experience of the “third heaven” in Second Corinthians 12:2 ff is a “by the way” sort of comment, obviously autobiographical. Note, however, he did not discuss how to reach the third heaven, much less encourage anyone to try to replicate his feat—both of which, were he a practicing mystic or a member of a contemplative tradition, he most certainly would have done. I mention this specifically so nobody will consider hammering me over the head with this passage, which would not prove Christianity’s “mystical” nature anyway.)