Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Buddhist Christianity?

You know how it is. You get the parish magazine and look through it, seeing what is on and should be remembered, looking at what has happened, and any reflections by individuals who have contributed a short article. The parish magazine straddles two worlds - and not always easily: matters internal to the church on the ground (churchworld) and matters in the town (secularworld). So the lead article by the priest of the parish sits somewhere between those poles, and varies from being boring to interesting. You look to see if he or she has said this sort of thing recently, or whether it is a fresh thought. Let's not forget the adverts, either; the adverts are a two way message: local businesses attracting trade to them and, the other way, a description of something about the local economy in the town.

Then there are the inserts from outside, and usually the fewer the better. However, the message from the bishop should not be considered an insert, in the sense that the priests in the church are actually the bishop's representatives, in that he cannot be everywhere at once (so the theory goes). Usually the bishop's piece is only a variant of what the priest writes (or vice versa), and so can be as interesting and as boring, and equally sits somewhere between churchworld and secularworld in its message, though covering a bigger geographical area.

So I picked up the St. Mary's Barton-upon-Humber Parish News, and arrived at Bishop John's Letter, and I found it extraordinary. I was quite gobsmacked; like, what is he on about? Before I make comments, I'll reproduce it in full here:

Bishop John’s Letter

God goes where He is wanted

This was the conclusion drawn by Philip Yancey as he reflected on how Christianity’s statistical centre of gravity has shifted from the Middle East, to Europe, to North America, to the developing world. In his in-depth statistical study of global Christian allegiance through 2,000 years, Todd Johnson concludes that by 2100 this centre of gravity is likely to be in north Nigeria.

Of course, such studies are highly speculative, but the very fact that there was a gathering of global south Anglican leaders prior to this year's Lambeth Conference suggests that the predictions are not far wrong. The signs are that this will entail the dominance of more conservative expressions of Christianity and this will be welcomed by many in this country. But there will also be those for whom any loss of more inclusive and liberal perspectives will be a high price to pay.

One thing seems to be clear. The parts of the world where Christianity is growing numerically are characterised by fairly recent experience of inter-faith conflict and/ or political persecution. It has been said often enough that persecution helps Christians to value and fight for their traditional beliefs. Where Christianity is not subject to such active opposition then it runs the risk of becoming woolly and soft-centred. Whilst we may welcome the fact that in our communities across the Diocese of Lincoln we experience relatively little hostility to our faith, it is worth pondering the implications in terms of our own sense of commitment to convictions by which we live and for which we might be prepared to suffer and die.

My own view is that any new centre of gravity for Christianity in the future will not be located in Africa but in China. There are already more practising Christians in China than in Europe, and their numbers are increasing exponentially as a result of the rise in population, but also as a direct consequence of state persecution. This could mean that Buddhist forms of Christianity - already growing in popularity in the West - might prove more influential than that hard-line fundamentalism characteristic of the global south. As China continues to develop as a force to be reckoned with in international politics and economic power, this is clearly a scenario which cannot be ruled out.

So as the eyes of the world are on China for the Olympic Games, perhaps Christians world-wide also need to keep an eye on the growth of Chinese Churches in terms of both their numbers and influence. If the west continues to turn its back on God, then it might well be that God will go where He is wanted - wherever that might be.

Bishop John

Clearly this is in part a reflection on the Lambeth Conference 2008. It is about where the worldwide weight of Christianity may be, and what was impacting on Lambeth 2008. It also reflects on the common lack of attendance in Anglican churches. It reflects John Saxbee's own position, such as his presidency of the Modern Churchpeople's Union, a broadly liberal body, and one that is under some pressure.

What puzzles me is this reference to, firstly, China and secondly, "Buddhist forms of Christianity, already growing in popularity in the West". I'm puzzled.

First of all the Chinese population is not growing hugely, as the authorities have tackled population growth (in a way that democracies could not); nevertheless, China has huge potential for growth in Christianity. It won't be due to persecution as such - it will grow faster without it - but due to economic and social modernisation. There is a materialistic Protestantism that grows with economic development, and this has been seen elsewhere in South East Asia. It is not the same as the superstitious, literalist and authoritarian Christianity found in struggling Africa, but it is charismatic and has much of the individualist prosperity gospel about it. This will not be Anglican and therefore the pressure on Anglicanism will still come from the ex-missionary churches and their version of Episcopal fundamentalism, though their breaking away into their own authoritarian structures will siphon off some of that pressure into division and competition.

What is this Buddhist Christianity? Well there was a Buddhist Christianity that Martin Palmer has described in Palmer, M. (2001), The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Religion of Taoist Christianity, London: Judy Piatkus. It is of the Church of the East that derived from the Nestorian Church and its outside the Roman Empire development (it was somewhat heterodox) that then stretched across the Silk Road via the Zoroastrians into China. It was more about the birth and incarnation of Jesus than the resurrection, and was quite magical; it was monastic and became part of the Buddhist-Taoist-Confucian mix. However, though its Jesus Sutras joined other Buddhist Sutras in cave storage at the Silk Road, this form of Christianity died and was unknown to the Roman Catholic missionaries who came to China from the sea.

So he cannot be talking about that: the discovery of Taoist or Buddhist Christianity of this sort was through the Sutras as documents of a lost branch of the religion. It never had the power of state support as provided by the Roman Empire and the Roman and Eastern Churches.

He says that Buddhist Christianity is growing in popularity in the West. Well, Buddhism is growing in the West. There is a group misnamed as being Protestant Buddhists but they are simply a Western movement of Buddhists drawing from Mahayana and Hinayana traditions under Sangharakshita, both relating to the West and seeking to transform the West. I used to go regularly to their sessions, indeed I was quite involved along with the Western Buddhist Order people never mind simply among the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Rev. Don Cupitt might at times be described as a Buddhist Christian, but the Sea of Faith movement to which his ideas gave rise is no clone of his views.

I might be described as Buddhist Christian too, in that for me Christianity ought to be completely unsupernatural and its path is about personal and group reorientation. It has to be more an orthopraxy than an orthodoxy, and is about coming to terms with death not life after death. My view of religious practice is that it is a means to selflessness, and rather difficult to achieve. If you become selfless in a profound way via practice, and you cease attachment to what is transient, then you on the road to liberation. This is why you can face death, your extinction: not because the life somehow carries on, but because you have acquired the spiritual strength of letting go. Yet the ethical base is in part a reflection of Rabbi Jesus, the ethical reversals involved in going into a transformed reality, and the notion of costly service. But in the story, even Jesus asks to have the burden of service (unto death) lifted. Another aspect of this Buddhist Christianity is the demotion of God: God is either a condition of pure transcendence (but it is not the equivalent of Nirvana: Keith Ward was simply wrong about this in his Liberal Christianity lecture with Affirming Liberalism) However, whilst I might be a Buddhist-Christian, I cannot see many people rushing to this banner or agreeing with me. I see a Buddhist (the Revd. Fr. François Lepine) in a Liberal Catholic outfit, but that is rather esoteric in approach, wheras I am biased towards the non-supernatural and non-magical. I am indeed rather like the Buddhists of the Western Buddhist Order, but they would find my straddling Buddhism and Christianity very much against their message.

So, much as this letter intrigues me, it baffles me; I really have no idea what he means.

[The drawing, by the way, is of a Christian pagoda]


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Erika's multiple posting difficulties have led to mine - I lost the lot. So this one covers what was received by email notification:

Erika sent this:

I wonder if your difficulty arises because you have a very detailed knowledge about Buddhist Christianity and assume that the writer is coming from the same place.

But he may not be. Especially in the context of a parish magazine he may simply be trying to distinguish between authoritatian, moralistic forms of Christianity and the more meditation, self enlightenment focused approach we commonly associate with Buddhism.

I believe Tim Goodbody also commented and asked why I don't ask him, that bishops like receiving mail. I can't find his email comment at all.

I'll be more careful in future.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

That may be so; he may mean it in a general sense. But then I think he should have said this, as in "a sort of Buddhist style Christianity".

I could write to him, and when I did last time about the Advent Letter 2007 (when I was steaming) he wrote back incredibly quickly and I was very impressed. However, this is just intriguing whereas that Advent Letter was a turning point.

Hugh said...

There are many people wrestling with Buddhist-Christian questions. Some academic groups meet every year and put out an annual publication: "Buddhist-Christian Studies". Others write on topics of commonality is found (eg "Spirituality & Emptiness" by Donald Mitchell). It is easier for a Catholic to come to Buddhism by way of the Via Negativa tradition than those Protestants who see Christianity strictly based on a literal reading of the Bible. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have diverse contemplative practices which allow for more flexibility in how one sees and experiences Christ, Mary and the Saints and relates them to Buddhist monastic practices. The Via Negativa (the Apophatic)can intersect well with the Zen (Ch'an) tradition. Mary, the Virgin Mother, has much in common with Guan-Yin (Kannon) so there is much room for investigating the features that Buddhism and Christianity hold in common. Perhaps it is time we emphasized the similarities rather than focusing on the differences between these two great world religions.

Hugh said...
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Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Thank you Hugh, that is most useful. Indeed there are these overlaps and interesting that there is the spirituality angle, something towards which I try to find.

Erika Baker said...

Concentrating on the overlaps is a wonderful idea, but one that scares most people of faith rigid. Where would their security and certainty be if they couldn't be sure that they were right and the other's didn't own the truth?

I'm fascinated by your thoughts on the Via Negativa.
Being very much a Via Positiva person I am nevertheless in tune with much of what I understand Buddhism to represent. The only difference is that Buddhism is ultimately focused on the individual self, whereas I believe, based on personal experience, that there is an Other that helps me to become what I could not become on my own.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Why does it scare people rigid? It is because they are attached to a particular definition. It may be that they have to be attached to it, but again the object of faith is to cease such attachments. If you can cease such attachments then you have gone along the dharma of release.

We are individuals, but one of the insights of Buddhism is the connection between lack of attachment and an attitude of loving kindness - an analogy would be at a road accident you simply go in to help, doing such with awareness but almost automatically. Indeed the point of religious practice is to inculcate loving kindness at the same time as developing non-attachment.

When you have loving kindness, then the development of the individual is enhanced with service to the other, whether human or non-human. There is an ethical core that must reach out. But it is individualist.

So I have a stance in which I use the Christian tradition to develop a practice whilst, at the same time, attach myself lightly to the attachment elements of that tradition, and easily draw on other traditions (as I am obviously doing). I refuse to obey the rules other than in liturgical practices.

Erika Baker said...

I agree.
But I am also convinced that people turn to faith for 2 entirely different reasons.
One group needs a security blanket, something that protects them from the risks, questions and dangers of life, but instead keeps them safe, reassured that if they do or believe x, y or z, they are "saved".

The other group of people sees the faith stories of their religion as a starting point from which to ask questions, to grow and develop further, and to live safely with increasing uncertainty.

The more you are welded to your security blanket the less you can risk even the slightest admission that it might not be 100% right, because then it would no longer be secure.
The risk of not being saved is so terrible that all minutiae of your faith have to be controlled, enshrined in law and cast in stone.

The moment you admit that others, too, who are different from you in so many ways, may have glimpsed a piece of truth, the whole edifice begins to crumble.

You only have to look at the bizarre conversations on TA of whether people accept Jesus as Lord in a 100% prescribed way or not. Even those who follow Christ but mean something slightly different by that, are perceived a danger to the rigid structure needed to keep you safe and saved.