Saturday, August 27, 2011

Christ Dharma

A more formal review about to be published of two books I have written about before...

Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian: Paul F. Knitter: One World Publications 2009: ISBN 978-1-85168-673-5: £12.99

Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness: Ross Thompson: O Books 2010: ISBN 978-1-84694-336-2: £14.99

An apocryphal story has Jesus traveling to Kashmir during his missing years to learn the wisdom of ‘the East’. He would have found there a flourishing Buddhist culture the embrace of which would transform the way he presented his mission.

This story aside, both the authors of these compelling and rich books, perceive taking such a journey now as a necessary and fertile one both autobiographically to enrich their own Christian faith and within the wider encounter between both traditions and between these traditions and the modern world.

Paul F. Knitter quotes his once teacher, the great German Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, suggesting that if Christianity is to survive, it must become a church of mystics. People who place at the heart of their journey not subscription to set of saving beliefs but a faithful practice that leads to real, abiding and transformative experiencing. Salvation that is felt and embodied as well as believed in and hoped for. A critical encounter with Buddhism can radically aid Christianity in this mission.

Both books cover similar territory from their own perspectives. Thompson’s book I would characterize as the more interior of the two while Knitter’s long term commitment to work on justice and peace demands that he explore the social and political dimensions of the encounter.

At that heart both offer Buddhism as a way of teasing Christianity away from imagining that its doctrinally expressed truths are ‘the truth’. Buddhism has a deeper and more central recognition that all language is symbolic. It can only point to, show forth the moon, it cannot be a substitute for experiencing it (and often we found ourselves more interested in the hand that points than the way pointed to).

In this both have to tackle re-visioning  of who Jesus is. If one is a Christian, in some fundamental, grounding sense, Jesus must be unique but if you are to be open to the truth embodied in other traditions, He cannot be the only way to salvation.

For Knitter it makes sense to see Jesus as ‘the Awakener’ that Jesus’ divinity was not something that was dropped on him from above (or something that he has that we do not) but that divinity, being the Son of God, was something he grew into, a realization that deepened as an abiding conviction and way of life, that he radically shared with others unto death and beyond. In this ‘salvation’ for us is not something that we, having claimed Jesus as our own, wait around for, trying to keep out of trouble and doing good works, before being lifted into heaven but a continuous process of opening ourselves to, and assimilating, the divine life through spiritual practice and love of neighbour.

For Thompson it makes sense to see Jesus as a ‘Bodhisattva’ - a being who has refused entry into Nirvana until all beings, until ‘the last blade of grass’, has entered enlightenment.  But a radical kind of bodhisattva, one who has taken upon himself the bad karma of others so that we recognize that our salvation is not an individual task but a corporate struggle: “It is a struggle carried by the community of those committed to sharing his death in order to share his life with the whole world (2 Corinthians 4:11) (Thompson page 151).

One of the most valuable features of Thompson’s book is that he uses a ‘Buddhist Christian perspective’ to re-vision possibilities for both traditions. In probably his most illuminating chapter he explores the construction of desire. Christians tend to see a disordered desire transformed by redirecting it towards its proper place in God. Buddhists sees the need to still the whole structure of desire and to step into desirelessness. But both tend to see the problem of desire as that of the individual. Thompson shows that what we desire is constructed communally: we learn what is to be desired from the social structures we inhabit. Both traditions need to develop a more robust understanding of how corporately we transform the communities we inhabit that in turn liberate individual opportunities for transformation.

This is a place from which Knitter can add his own most interesting contribution. He seeks to expound why Buddhism allows Christianity to more deeply occupy its 'unique' territory - that radical concern that God is perceived to have for those who are most deeply marginal, suffering or poor. God in Christianity is biased - we find God when we attend to the needs of those whose need is greatest. This vitally contrasts with Buddhism's universalizing compassion. Compassion does not take sides, justice does. Knitter beautifully suggests how both are necessary and both enable each other.

If we are to pursue justice, we need to understand how our capacity to be peace, to wait upon opportunity, helps us achieve justice.

In this Knitter has a compelling discussion of anger - that it drives us towards pursuing justice but must be contained within a capacity to be detached, to let go. To bring us to a space where we can allow ourselves to release anger, and move towards clarity and charity.

Christianity is the intention of justice, Buddhism is the practice of peace. To achieve justice, we must be peace, but individual peaceful attainment must be suffused with the need to transform the structures of injustice. In this Knitter’s last chapter, Christianity and Buddhism, from radically different perspectives, dance towards a common transformation, enabled by each other.

This is only to capture one related theme from the two books. There are many other strands such as the radical similarity between the ethical teaching of Buddha and Christ rooted in radically different biographies and contexts or the comparative exploration of ‘sin’ and ‘karma’; ‘heaven’ and ‘reincarnation’. All of these themes are enriched in both texts by the narrative of a personal unfolding story that makes the engagement between high thinking and illustrative story an accomplished achievement in both.

Both authors, I think, successfully avoid either being simplistically syncretistic or pulling the same rabbit of a ‘perennial philosophy’ out of the very different hats of two living, embodied, complex traditions. Knitter’s image of passing over to Buddhism to return to a renewed Christianity holds true for both authors.They may not win plaudits from either mainstream Christians or Buddhists, even as both remain resolutely clear about the radical differences that obtain between them but for those of us who think that neither tradition is finished or complete that both can and should remain in what Thompson calls ‘a passionate openness’ both to each other and the world both books are beautifully written and passionately held contributions to an on-going exploration into the truth of things.

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