Dec 212010
 

For a few weeks I have been ruminating on what I would post for the Christmas season, and then it finally came to me: Who owns Christianity? Who has the authority to codify what it does or does not mean to be a Christian, or regulate who can or cannot call themselves Christian, let alone who is permitted to be Christian?

Recent discussions with dear friends have once again brought to my attention how easy, how seductive, how unconsciously reflexive it can be to think and speak with labels, such as “Christian” or “Christianity.”  As labels, these terms serve as a kind of shorthand conveying a wide range of assumptions and generalizations about the person or persons to whom they are attached.  Sometimes we even label ourselves in this way.  The use of labels also easily taps into my personal beliefs and value judgments that accompany those assumptions and generalizations, and thus stimulates emotional reactions and attitudes toward the person or persons I have labeled.   Almost invariably, these processes occur semi-consciously, and I do not realize that in the process I have dehumanized somebody.  I do not realize that I have started treating a person as an abstraction that I am judging as right or wrong, and thus about which I am either comfortable or uncomfortable.  I do not realize that I have forgotten she is a unique child of God, a one-of-a-kind gift of Love to this world, like that little child in Bethlehem.  I may not ever realize that I have missed an opportunity to welcome, understand, accept, value and coexist with her, to love him, as that precious gift.   One of the ironic things about this pattern is that I do it despite how much I dislike other people doing it, which reminds me of Paul in Romans 7:15.

I know what it feels like to be the object of someone’s labeling, their stereotyping, and how it can harm the potential for us to care for each other as two whole and fully present human beings.   Some of the most troubling labels I’ve experienced are “Christian” and “bad” or “false” Christian.  Even “good” or “true” Christian can be troubling, and perhaps even more so!  The baggage that comes along with identifying as Christian can be enormous.  Many non-Christians automatically assume I fit their stereotype, which seems to be an increasingly negative one that prevents them from being open to anything more than a superficial relationship.  At worst, it leads some people to instantly take a distrusting, defensive and hostile position with me because they are certain that I am going to be judgmental, narrow minded, prudish, condescending and proselytizing.  On the other hand, fellow Christians often automatically assume I share most if not all of their beliefs and attitudes about things, or fit their own stereotypes of “Christian”.   When it’s discovered that I don’t fit their expectations, it’s not unusual for them to act like they are shocked and offended or threatened, as though I have personally challenged their own sense of identity, and then they put me in some other box.  I know I am not alone in these things, and it’s probably safe to say that you have also been painfully aware of them at times.

Experiences with the Christian stereotypes, and having seen myself in all the roles, have repeatedly led me to wonder about the value in calling myself Christian.  Of course, I do it for a number of reasons:  It is my native religious culture, and its symbolism, ritual, lore and language were being poured into my psyche even before I was born.  Through childhood, adolescence and early young adulthood it remained the primary milieu in which my ideas about self, other human beings, and the world took shape.  As I explored other traditions in adulthood, and now well into middle age, despite my willingness and attempts to let it go, Christianity has remained a constant reference point.  These experiences, combined with a growing understanding of how the psyche works in general, and mine in particular, led me to realize that, of all the world’s spiritual traditions, Christianity has the greatest potential to serve as a bridge between the consciousness of my adult personality and the childlike presence deep in my heart.  I came to realize that I just can’t help it that Christ’s love is the spiritual ideal that most inspires me.  I, this adult named “Chuck”, didn’t choose for all of these things to happen, but I do choose to accept them.  I am a Christian because I embrace the reality that the spirit and traditional forms of Christianity permeate my being; it is my religious home.

No matter how much doctrinal testing, prooftexting or Bible thumping anyone might do, nobody can take away my Christian identity, and in that sense I own it.  I also own it to the extent that I accept responsibility for the never-ending process of determining what Christianity means to me, and what it means for me to be a Christian.  In these ways I own Christianity for myself, and in doing so I realize and respect the right of every other Christian to do the same.  But, as noted earlier, I must also admit that even I can’t take my Christian identity away from me.  In many ways it is bigger than me, not controlled or possessed by this personality named “Chuck”, and so I can no more own it than the air I breathe.

Yet I don’t think that is where this issue of ownership stops.  As you might have been expecting from the moment you read the title of this post, if anyone rightfully owns Christianity it must ultimately be God through Christ.  Furthermore, as all creatures are God’s children, I believe we are all heirs and co-trustees of Christianity, just as we are with the air we all share, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And the messenger said to them, `Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people — because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord….  (Luke 2:10-11, my emphasis)

Emmanuel!

Merry Christmas!

Nov 292010
 

Here are two dialogues between a Christian mystic and Buddhists.  They are not shared as an attempt to define either religion or to hold one up as superior to the other.  What is important to me is the fraternal meeting of minds, the exposure of mystical and non-dualist perspectives in Christianity, and the  achievement of greater understanding between people of significantly different traditions.

Dialogue #1: The Ultimate Personal Relationship

They were discussing the nature of the Ultimate, beginning at what seemed to be a classic impasse:  The Christian spoke of the Ultimate as a personal God, and the a-theistic Buddhist spoke of the Ultimate as the impersonal principle of Being that gives rise to all things, yet is not contained by all things.

In their discussion, the Christian typically asserted that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving.  The Buddhist countered that if this is so, then God would be impossible for a human being to understand, that God must also be all-mysterious.  The Christian agreed, yet held that while God could not be understood, God could still be experienced as the great mystery of life itself.  The Buddhist smiled, apparently thinking that he now had the upper hand in the debate.  He asked the Christian how, if God is all-mysterious, one could rightly refer to God as “personal.”

The Christian had two responses:  First, he clarified that when many mystical theologians speak of God as a person, or a trinity of three persons, they are speaking in metaphors that only address ways God can be experienced by human beings.  Second, he said that since we are persons, it only makes sense that one of the most powerful and meaningful ways of experiencing God is as a person too.  So, while speaking of God as a person may be understood to be a metaphor, speaking of one’s experience with God as a personal relationship is entirely fitting.

Well, the Buddhist furrowed his brow for a moment, looking like a chess player trying to salvage his gambit from an unexpected move.  Suddenly he looked up with an idea.  He said that if experiencing God as a person is only a way of experiencing the Ultimate, then wouldn’t a purer, simpler way to experience the Ultimate be as the impersonal principle of Being?

The Christian asked if the Buddhist was one who thinks of the Ultimate as beyond all oppositions and thus non-dual.  The Buddhist said that he did.  Then the Christian said that if we are going to regard the Ultimate as non-dual, it is just as inaccurate to speak of It as impersonal as to speak of It as personal.  He said that personal and impersonal fall into the categories of either/or, neither/nor as well as both/and when speaking of the Ultimate, or God, and that what makes the difference is simply the kinds of experience one is open to.

The Buddhist was nodding with a blank face for moment, and then he laughed.   He said that now he could finally understand Christianity, but he wondered how many Christians do.  The Christian asked how many Buddhists really understand Buddhism, and they both laughed together.

Dialogue #2: If You Meet the Dharmakaya on the Via Negativa….

Zen Buddhist (ZB): “I would be very grateful if you could explain your interest in Zen.”

Christian Mystic (CM): “Zen is of interest because of its acceptance of this moment, right here, right now, just as it is.  The interconnected complexity of everything is permeated by this simplicity.  This explanation isn’t adequate.”

ZB: “Very interesting.  The shift of consciousness, from that of the periphery, to that of the ‘central’ position of the Mind, is, as I understand it, the essential thrust of the Ch’an-Zen teaching – a Buddhism, without the requirement for ‘Buddhism’, so-to-speak.

“In a sense, the Buddha’s own teaching, even within the Pali Canon, advocates the ‘letting go’ of even the method that gets one to the destination – the Dhammapada uses the allusion of a ‘raft’, and another shore being reached, etc.  One question that intrigues me is this; is it possible to reconcile the teaching of ’emptiness’ (sunyata), with that of the existence of a theistic entity creating and controlling all things?”

CM: “Yes, Zen [and Christian mysticism, for that matter] may be thought of as a tool.  About letting go of the raft, the limitation of this metaphor is the notion of a destination, which is not to say that such a notion is not useful.

“The teaching of sunyata can be likened to the Via Negativa of Western mysticism, in which it is acknowledged that the concept of God as a supremely active and intentional intelligence is only one way to think about and relate to God.  In the Via Negativa we continually strip our minds of such concepts to abide in the utter mystery of God, knowing that such thoughts are only limited creations of the mind or, if you will, fingers pointing at God.  In effect, we acknowledge the emptiness of such notions.  One effect of this practice can be to return back to simple awareness of this passing moment.

“So it is that, among many Western mystics, words about God have much in common with the Buddhist concept of Dharmakaya, which suggests a non-duality that is at once empty and full, no-thing and every-thing, impersonal and personal, unintentional and intentional, etc.  [In essence, “God” is the word we use for the Great Mysterious Truth of reality.]  For one in such a position, relating to God as a theistic entity can become a kind of artistic experience and expression of life.  [It is a way to express our love of the Great Mystery.]”

ZB: “Interesting, and well thought out.

“I am reminded of Matthew Fox, and his Original Blessing book, which deals with concepts such as ‘via negativa’, (as juxtaposed with ‘via positiva‘).  In that sense, a binary system that reconciles into an experiential ‘whole-ness’, realised within the spiritual being.  Allusions to similar systems, such as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Earth’, ‘yin’ and ‘yang’, are obvious.

“Of course, a ‘reconciliation’ does imply some kind of ‘third’ other, that actually realises the ‘reconciliation’.  The Dharmakaya (body of truth) is one candidate, and this is often presented in the Mahayana as part of a triad – (usually in conjunction with the nirmanakaya and the sambhogakaya).  Whether it could equally be said to be representative of a theistic entity, is problematic.  As none of the bodies of the Buddha originate ‘outside’ of the Mind.

“And this, (I sense), is where the breakdown of language raises its head!  God can not possibly be ‘God’, if God is in any way ‘real’.  As ‘God’ is a construct of the human Mind.  What lies beyond the construct, would in theory, also lie beyond the dualistic schemes that attempt to organise and explain nature in one, convenient philosophical presentation.

“The practice of Zen would eventually require the ‘giving-up’ of notions of ‘God’, and ‘Zen’, as well as any idea of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’.  As you say, a ‘timeless’, and ever ‘present’ moment of perfect being – free from discursive thinking and emotional over-lay.”

CM: “Peace.”

ZB: “Peace to you also.”