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Anne

Hi John

I've talked to some converts to Buddhism in depth before, and I think (as he says) there are some parallels between the older (non-Augustinian) views of original sin and the Buddhist view. What does it mean to strive for "right thought" and "right action" except that, in our current states, we don't think or act right?

His thought that, in Christianity, "we suffer because we are basically broken, bad people, and we don't follow the rules." -- that's not the Christianity I know. True, we don't follow the rules. But the rules, at the core, are to love God and neighbor. That is at risk of being belittled as some sort of unthinking authoritarian conformity rather than the greatest joy in life worthy of our wholehearted pursuit, to live it full of love.

Again, his thought that 'the "way out" of suffering is to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, follow in his footsteps as best as humanly able, and pray hard that you'll make it to Heaven, an afterlife free of suffering' is not quite Christianity as I know it. First off, "the kingdom of heaven is among you" Christ said, already. Then it kind of repaints Christianity in semi-Buddhist terms as a quest to escape suffering by our own efforts. Christianity is not a quest to escape suffering; it is a quest to be re-united with God. And it's not a "way" that we have to struggle to find; Jesus says "I'm the way." Why is our goal to be re-united with God? The Christianity that I know has God's love for us as the foundation of all. Speaking of differences between religions, that concept right there is a huge one. And the kingdom of heaven is already among us inasmuch as we have Jesus, "God with us," here and now. Read the gospels with an eye to how much suffering, shame, fear, and death disappear with Jesus' presence and touch.

He says, "In other words, there is no escape from suffering in this lifetime, but only in the next." True, but then again Christianity isn't so oriented towards escaping suffering. I remember reading a passage of Augustine's Confessions about some sort of semi-Stoic philosophy he'd bought into at one point, and it struck me like "freedom from suffering by the path of freedom from caring or involvement." Jesus taught the opposite: love even if it brings you the greatest suffering. Love even if it brings you a literal cross. Love even if it kills you. Why? Because creation is good in God's eyes, and our lives are worth it in God's eyes. The reason there is no annihilation in Christianity: it's because Jesus was on a rescue mission, and that's because God loves you. He values you. He doesn't intend for you to be lost to nothingness.

Argh, I could keep going but I'll stop.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

JohnFH

Anne,

Jacob is probably pondering and writing at this very moment. I'm convinced he will find your reflections helpful. Feel free to continue if you wish.

John Cobb, who is of course famous mostly because he is a process theologian, wrote perceptively on many things. Cobb is a very synthetic thinker, and in the book I recommended to Jacob, he examines the thought of all the major world religions with great empathy, identifies distinctive traits in each, with witness to the experience of "God is love" at the pulsating center of the universe the defining characteristic of Christianity.

Is there an equivalent to the experience of "God is love" in Buddhism? (See 1 John if you are wondering why I call this an experience.)

Well, yes, in one minoritarian version of it. It's a Japanese version which puts "grace" at the center of the awareness granted to the members of its discipline. Karl Barth discusses it in his Dogmatics; he searched far and wide for sola gratia in the world religions, and reports to have found it in one version of Buddhism alone, outside of Christianity. It is, interestingly enough, the only version of Buddhism in which clergy are allowed to marry. I know this because a friend of mine, now a professor of OT in Tokyo, told me the story of his father, a monk in that order. At some point his father happened on a NT, read it, and said, "this is what I already believe." He became a Christian. Now his son is a professor of Old Testament. Fancy that.

On a side note, sola gratia (sheer grace as the fundamental principle of existence) is a strand within biblical (Ezekiel) *and* post-biblical Judaism. We rightly associate the teaching with Jesus and Paul (and Augustine and Luther and Calvin), but the teaching is found elsewhere, albeit in different contexts.

Marilyn

In writing a long comment, I do not intend to imply that I will advance the conversation. I post simply because these threads touch on a question that I’ve been struggling with for quite some time – what is Christian spirituality? I think my question is relevant to this post, because our spirituality is the outworking of our beliefs.

There are so many factors in contemporary culture that are pulling Christians – particularly women – toward contemplative spiritual disciplines. (I feel this pull.) Fundamentalist evangelicals assert these practices are wrong because they are Buddhist. The cover story of last month’s CT made such an assertion. In contrast, liberal evangelicals advocate contemplative practices. Neither side appears to offer any reasoned analysis behind its assertions, much less a framework for thinking about Christian spiritual practice.

Personally, despite the pull, I hold back because contemplation is alien to everything that I’ve been taught about Christian spirituality. To borrow Philip Yancey’s argument in his book, Prayer, I struggle with viewing contemplation as a Christian spiritual discipline because it bears seemingly no resemblance to the answer Jesus gave when asked by his disciples how to pray. And, yet . . .

I agree, we’re losing a generation because we are not discipling young people or new believers. But, that’s not for a lack of apologetics books! Rather, the problem (I think) is our failure to acknowledge that rational thought does not adequately address questions about love and suffering. IMO, that – more than our anti-intellectualism – is what drives folks to atheism and non-Western religions. Our discipling doesn’t answer the questions that matter most. Relatedly, we tend to ignore the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity that is at the heart of our beliefs, defies the basic axioms of logic. In that sense, Christianity implicitly acknowledges a way of knowing that is beyond logical thinking. What we fail to do, is to address the implications of this for our spirituality.

I agree that ourgoal is union with God. I define that as conformity of my will to God’s will. The Bible also tells me that as I surrender to God (i.e., intimacy is impossible without obedience), the Holy Spirit works in me in a way that results in my over time coming to truly desire God’s will. The Holy Spirit dwells in me, but in both this life and in the life to come, I remain an embodied creature.

Where I struggle is with the fact that emerging brain science speaks to the benefits of contemplation. Eastern meditation practices such as focused breathing and body checks develop parts of the brain associated with empathy, etc. A case can be made that contemplation breaks down the ego defenses that blind me to my sin. Being aware of the present moment sensitizes me to my sin and furthers my obedience. Does this imply a role for contemplation in Christian spirituality? If so, what is Christian contemplation?

From my reading, Buddhist contemplative practices imply that there is nothing but our experience of the present moment. In contrast, The Word tells me to remember: to remember God’s redemptive story as told in the Bible, to remember God’s redemptive work in my life, and to remember what is not yet but will be. So, is contemplation ok as long as it is seeped in remembering. What does the Bible means by “meditation”?

I’ll stop here, because this is more than enough to share the gist of my muddle.

Lue-Yee Tsang

I wanted to say something about incarnation and kenosis, but I don’t know what.

JohnFH

It'll come to you, Lue-Yee.

Marilyn,

It would be grand if a rediscovery of lectio divina or meditative reading of Scripture took place in which the communion of saints and communion with God could be sought single-heartedly, a rediscovery that united Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals.

The potential for something like this is clear, and attention to things like breathing and posture and "spiritual stance" could be cultivated at the same time.

Would that mean we as Christians would be learning from Buddhism? Yes, and I can't for the life of me see why that is a problem. In principle Thomas Merton was right, though I probably have issues with some of his applications. It's a matter of exercising spiritual discernment. It can be done boldly and, at the same time, circumspectly.

Christianity is always at its best when it is confident enough and humble enough to acknowledge gifts from the "outside," in full awareness that general revelation is a dimension of common grace.

Jacob

Oh, so much...

I am not a scholar.
Nor a Christian,
Nor a Buddhist.
And I feel I'm in over my head.

However, I am an earnest seeker. It is not my intention to take pot-shots at Christianity--such rhetoric is neither useful nor enlightening. Anne, I understand your distress at seeing the tradition you know and love (and in which you are growing and becoming closer to God) characterized in the way I spoke of it in my letter to Pastor John. Please understand that when I speak to John, I'm speaking to probably the most educated human being I know (to say nothing of raw intelligence), and he has chosen Christianity as his path (or maybe Christianity has chosen him). In either case, I have great respect for this tradition and don't seek to tear it down or diminish it in any way.

I also understand that Christianity is not primarily concerned with the end of suffering as such, but with re-union with God. Buddhism, it appears, is not so much concerned with union with God as it is with the end of suffering. Yet, I think its completely plausible (and I think scripture from both traditions would support) that these could be precisely the same thing.

Please allow me to speak personally for a bit, because if you know and post on this blog you are almost certainly more educated than I am, more devoted than I am, and in general wiser than I am. And I'm asking for help. Until very recently, my view of Christianity was entirely informed by the impressions I got between about the ages of 7 and 13, at Pastor John's congregation, Trinity United Methodist, two or three iterations before he took the reigns. I'm seven years old. Church is a pain in the butt. You have to get dressed up, there's boring music playing, some dude speaking at length about how to be a good person when there's an entire world waiting outside. Maybe even more of this kind of stuff in Sunday school afterwards. Church is full of old people--it moves like old people, it sounds like old people, it smells like old people. Evolve that impression into an angry 13 year-old, and Christianity is at best an old-school social networking device, and at worst a place where the old go to wait to die (and get a better life).

Of course I was an atheist.

And of course this isn't the Christianity that is so vital and so motivating to millions around the world. But this was totally inconceivable to me.

Fast forward ten or fifteen years--I'm a bit more worldly, trying to become educated enough to actually consider myself a world citizen, and I begin to experience a spiritual revolution. The door, for me, was western style yoga, that much-maligned new-agey watery spirituality that both the atheists and the monotheists find so repulsive. (Contemplative prayer! My God! Marilyn, you've hit my problem exactly on the head.)

But I found something real in it. And it is real, for me, because it is a first-hand experience of the divine, from the very first pose. Of course, my teacher didn't tell me thats what it was, at first, because it would have sent me running. But slowly, methodically, I came to understand that the experience in a yoga posture (or, hell, any posture) is Prana, energy, divine spirit, Holy Ghost. And from there the ten commandments are explicated (not word for word with the Christian version, but certainly they're not mutually exclusive). Then prayer of praise, and finally, yes, contemplative prayer.

So, OK, I have a path. Its called Raja Yoga, and its a good one. Follow it. Be happy.

But there is still so much work to do! I wanted to be intellectually sure (oh, doubt, doubt, doubt) that the path was right, so I went about re-studying that old Christianity I had written off so many years ago, and worked on it until I was fairly certain that all paths lead to God, and it doesn't really matter materially which path you take, as long as you follow it ardently, persistently, and with compassion. This was the stage when I would have said that Christianity and Buddhism are basically the same teaching.

Now, fast forward to last week. It became clear to me that its possible that they are not "the same teaching," because, in this one case specifically, the question of suffering, the treatment in each tradition seems to be wholly different. This is, to say the least, problematic to my worldview, so I sent the SOS call to Pastor John.

I characterized Christianity in the way that I did because I wanted to make clear (even to myself) how great the gulf is between these two traditions in this area. I feel the same distress when I see Buddhism or Yoga characterized by so many in the Christian tradition as "dry," a husk of a religion, a bunch of life-despairing people sitting around waiting for a final Nietzschean or Sartrean annihilation. Awful. This is not the Buddhism that I know, nor do I believe my youthful passion for Buddha's teaching comes just from being a young convert and full of "zealous submission"--we see zealous submission in every religion (call to discipleship) and its a good and vital thing. If there are dried-up old Buddhists out there sitting in despair and waiting for non-existence, they've gotten the teaching as wrong as someone who merely says, "Yes, I believe in Jesus and I'll have a better life after death," and then just keeps on doing whatever he was doing, waiting to die and get the reward in Heaven. Terrible.

But here we are, with two different traditions and two different understandings of the Divine, and us down here with all these questions. Pastor John spoke earlier about his numinous first-hand spiritual experience. Far from making fun of such a suggestion, I would only add that I've had one such first-hand experience, and he is quite right that it such experiences are veridical. They are also undeniable, yet incommunicable. One ends up feeling a bit crazy. Yet my experience was not numinous at all, but entirely monistic, and the more powerful because it didn't happen during meditation or asana practice but wholly unlooked for on the beach one day.

And here is the dichotomy that plays out when we look at suffering: God is both numinous and monistic, both immanent and transcendent (here Martin Buber helps us out significantly. and...Marcus Borg?). Yet, so many Christian sects lose the immanent for the transcendent, and so many Buddhist sects lose the transcendent for the immanent, and both of them get fairly angry when its suggested that the other half of their understanding of God could also be true.

But am I on the right track, here, or is this more of the Oprah-spirituality that Mr. Essary warns against? And this is why my question about how to deal with the question that is always posed, no matter what tradition, "Why do we suffer?" A robust and more or less true philosophy will be able to handle it, taking into account all teachings. A pop-philosophy will break down when confronted by opposing teachings from all sides.

Where do we go now?

Thank you.

Jacob

JohnFH

Jacob,

I see we are getting down to brass tacks, and quickly. I find great joy in this conversation, and I trust you do, as well.

The first thing I am going to do is turn your comment into a post with a thread of its own, and we will continue the conversation in that way.

John

<< There are so many factors in contemporary culture that are pulling Christians – particularly women – toward contemplative spiritual disciplines. (I feel this pull.)... Personally, despite the pull, I hold back because contemplation is alien to everything that I’ve been taught about Christian spirituality. >>

Hello Marilyn,

Contemplation (under various names) has a long history in Christianity. Although to find it, you may have to expand your circle beyond Evangelical sources. I'm a little pressed for time, but maybe the following will do for starters:

Witnesses of the Christian Contemplative Tradition

This form of prayer was first practiced and taught by the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria including Evagrius, John Cassian and St. John Climacus, and has representatives in every age. In the Patristic age, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great in the West, and Pseudo-Dionysius and the Hesychasts in the East.

In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry and Guido the Carthusian; the Rhineland mystics including St . Hildegarde, St. Mechtilde, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroek and Tauler; later the author of the Imitatian of Christ and the English mystics of the 14th century such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich.

After the Reformation, the Carmelites St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux; among the French school of spiritual writers: St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal and Cardinal Berulle; among the Jesuits: Fathers De Caussade, Lallemont and Surin; among the Benedictines: Dom Augustine Baker and Dom John Chapman; among modern Cistercians: Dom Vital Lehodey and Thomas Merton.

Over the centuries ways of cultivating contemplative prayer have always been called by various names corresponding to the different forms they have taken. Thus we have Pure Prayer (Cassian), Prayer of Faith, Prayer of the Heart, Prayer of Simplicity and Prayer of Simple Regard.

The Christian Contemplative Tradition
Fr.Thomas Keating OCSO

Peace,
John

JohnFH

Thanks, John. That was very helpful. I hope you will consider contributing further to this thread.

Anne K

Hi Marilyn

Contemplation seems so natural to me that it always throws me for a loop when people say that it's unfamiliar. I think we tend to over-analyze simple things; contemplation is as natural as breathing. I bet most people who would take up "contemplation and meditation" seriously would discover that they have, after all, been doing something a little bit like it all along.

Praise is the end-product of certain contemplations. Prayers of anguish and frustration are the end-product of others. The good poets and song-writers are contemplatives. The good prayer books are contemplative. And all of the above -- products of other peoples' contemplations -- can often inspire and fuel our own. I double-dog dare you to read the Psalms without going contemplative, or walk in the woods / park / nearest truly natural setting. The passages of Scripture that stick in our minds are lodged there waiting for us to meditate and contemplate, like mental post-it notes: Consider This.

I wish I could be a help but the mindset is so foreign to me. Though I'll second the recommendation of Therese of Lisieux. I was reading her memoirs (Story of a Soul) and just when I thought I can't handle one more chapter of her sounding like a spoiled brat, she grows up and says and does things that take my breath away with their beauty, and I see why she's one of the best-loved and most inspiring saints of the modern era. And the chapters where she started as a spoiled little girl ... we all start somewhere.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Marilyn

I’m very grateful for the replies. Thank you, Anne K and John (who provided the references). I'm not familiar with all of the authors that the two of you suggest, but I have read some. I agree - the writing is powerful precisely because it is so beautiful.

I was raised in a corner of the evangelical world that discounts early Church writing and views the contemplative tradition as an example of syncretism. So, “read the writings of the early church” doesn’t help me as much as it helps some. Rationally, I can say that “where in the Bible does it say . . .” is as applicable to, for example, journaling as it is to contemplative prayer. And, I can personally testify to the power of Lectio Divina. But, emotionally, this is a struggle.

But, that’s the nature of the spiritual journey, isn’t it? On this side of heaven, issues are rarely put firmly in the rear-view mirror.

Thanks again for the gracious replies. You folks are very kind to lay people like me who occasionally hi-jack threads here. It's much appreciated!

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  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.