Since first interviewing Buddhist monks in 2007, I have become increasingly aware of the contributions of Buddhist philosophy and practice, not only for Buddhists but also for Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) Now that I am teaching theological students in Southeast Asia on a regular basis, my interest in benefiting from Buddhism and in learning how to do contextual theology continues to rise as well.
Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. For example, how many Christians know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body and reduce anxiety? How many know how to comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom? How many have an ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering? How many genuinely value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships? Certainly, many Buddhists do not possess these qualities either, but as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are not accessible to most Christians.
Looking to the East is nothing new for occidental thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, especially in the West, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.
Our first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I don’t mean, at this point, what are the specific benefits that Christians should seek? (I addressed some of these contributions earlier and will again in the coming articles.) Rather, here, we are focusing on, how should Christians think about encountering another faith? What are the options? What are the issues?
Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different groups emerging.
- The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.
- The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without any rigorous intellectual theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. (Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it.)
- The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive worldview. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” as one of my friends like to say about those who genuinely love God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ.
Does it matter which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions? I think it does. Regardless of whatever degree of syncretism may secretly exist in everyone’s faith and spiritual practice, Christians still have the responsibility to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God, of how we may know God and relate to God, and of how God works in human lives, will all greatly affect our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, but integrating reason and experience.
In the end, every attempt to blend religions falls short of providing a secure spiritual foundation to build upon. I want to learn whatever I can from the wisdom and cultures found in the East, but Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorced Christian community reflection over the centuries, thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of Scripture.
The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers gratefully embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after yoga, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had usually involve being consciously aware of God; heart-felt, honest prayer; or hearing God speak to me through Scripture.
Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any credible source, and will gratefully borrow insights and practices from other religions, providing they genuinely cohere with how the Spirit speaks to me through Scripture, prayer, and my relationship with God in Christ.
I especially value dialoguing with those who offer alternative answers to ultimate and existential questions, because they help me to think more deeply and thoroughly. Yet, I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my identity as defined by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers, and if an encounter with different cultures and religions will help me to see something I’ve been blind to or ignorant of, I welcome the opportunity to learn and to grow.
What about you? How do you seek to learn from “others” in ways that truly move you forward in your spiritual journey and relationship with God?
A suggested prayer: “Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”
This posting is Article 1 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.”
© Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2012.