29 August 2004

The Buddha and me

A close family friend asked me the following question in an e-mail:

You are still involved with Buddhism, is this a contradiction of thefaith you are studying? I am ignorant when it comes the philosophies and faith of the Buddhist. Please educate me on this point.

I thought my answer was worthwhile to incude in the blog:

Well, I'm definitely no longer a practicing Buddhist, though I was for three years and I feel that I gained a lot from it--among other things, I don't think I could ever really have been a practicing Christian without being a practicing Buddhist first. The reason for that is also the reason why I don't really think there's a contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity: Buddhism is a set of spiritual practices, but not really a system of beliefs or of faith. It doesn't say anything one way or the other about God or gods. It's completely agnostic.

Buddhism is essentially a set of practices (different types of meditation) to work on training your mind to tend less toward anger, greed, and other sins (the Christian term) and to tend more toward compassion, patience, and other virtues. There are basically two things that would count as "beliefs" in Buddhism--reincarnation and karma. Neither is (in my opinion) essential to Buddhism (meditation works whether you believe in them or not), and I didn't really believe in them for most of the time I was a practicing Buddhist anyway. (Karma, or the law of moral cause and effect, is found in the Bible--Proverbs 11:18 and lots of other places--but with the important caveat that God's grace trumps blind justice.) There are also lots of stories about various people--historical and otherwise--who developed great virtues and great control over their sinful tendencies, but these stories are also not a metter of faith and are much like the parables of Jesus or the stories of the Christian saints.

But despite that I don't think there's anything wrong with Buddhism, I realized two things about it a couple of years ago which told me that it 's not the path for me. First, since Buddhism is essentially all about meditation practice, it takes a lot of discipline to be a good Buddhist and practice consistently. I don't have that discipline. (There's a whole tradition in Christianity that's very similar to Buddhist meditation--contemplative prayer--that I may vary well pursue when I'm older and less flighty. St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Fr. Thomas Keating, etc.)

The second thing was that Buddhism seemed to be missing something I needed. It wasn't until I returned to the Episcopal Church that I found out what it was I was missing--two things, actually. Our rector talks about three aspects of the Christian faith--worship, discipleship/formation, and mission/service. Buddhism is all about discipleship/formation; it has no aspect of worship (being agnostic) or mission (a fact which the Dalai Lama has taken Buddhists to task for again and again).

So I'm not longer a practicing Buddhist, but I keep the things I've learned from it as part of my spiritual equipment, so to speak. :-) And like I said, I think it was only because I had first practiced a spiritual discipline that didn't require belief that I could take the leap of faith and affirm the Christian creeds. Now I can't imagine living outside the context of a faith relationship with God, including worship, thanksgiving, prayer, and service, but six years ago I could never have gotten past intellectual problems with Christian belief. But last year, I could take the leap of faith, jump into Christian, and say "I believe, Lord, help my unbelief."

08 August 2004

Evangelism: too important to be left to the evangelicals

I think I might have quite a bit to say on the topic of evangelism as time goes on. I sense a growing interest in the subject within my church, and it's a topic for the coming year's Christian education curriculum. And ever since I took this course called LifeKeys and it indicated that evangelism might be among my spiritual gifts, I've been thinking about it a lot.

"But wait," you are perhaps saying, "given what you've previously said about exclusivism, pluralism, and salvation, why on earth would you want to run around converting people to Christianity?" Well, just because I don't think being a Christian is a prerequisite for salvation doesn't mean that I don't think being a Christian is a wonderful thing. I myself have undergone--and am continuing to undergo--a conversion experience to Christianity, and I consider myself much the better for it, to say the least.

I think there are many, many people who are "unsaved" for whom an encounter with the risen Christ could be the occasion for their salvation. (See my previous post regarding my belief about the nature of salvation--I reiterate that I don't consider it to be necessarily linked to historical Christianity, but is certainly can be.) I also think that there are many people who are saved but have no connection to any religious community or practice, and that these things can be very valuable aids to living out your salvation and developing your relationship with the divine.

I'm not looking to take people who have healthy, improving relationships with God, Allah, or their Buddha Nature and substitute their working practice with a copy of mine. That's pointless. But for those in search of faith, or possessing faith but in search of practice, an encounter with God in Christ might be just what they need. And I think it's certainly incumbent upon Christians to get out there and make those encounters possible--Great Commission and all that. I think it's a great failing of many in the mainline Christian denominations that we don't do that--either because we don't know how, or because our own pluralism makes us think it's not necessary. But that's a cop-out, and I suspect it's a cover story for lack of courage, because it seems self-evident to me that there's a great need to spread the Good News, whether you're a pluralist or not, for the reasons outlined above. And the wages of apathy will be the continued shrinking of the mainline denominations until they exist only in history books.

There's another reason why liberal Christians need to get on the stick with evangelism. If we leave it to the conservative evangelicals, there will be many who will never be reached. In our postmodern, secularist society, lots of people are simply never going to be conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals. It's just not going to happen. Lots of people simply can't check their brains--and often their hearts--at the church door in the way that many conservative churches require them to. In this day and age, if belief in a literal, worldwide Flood and a literal, eternal Hell are presented as prerequisites for being born again, many people will choose to hold on to the birth they've got now, the one that lets them hold onto science and compassion. And that's the way the Good News is being told by most of those who bother telling it! In my opinion, that's a crime. But it's something that I think at least some of us "mainline, liberal" Christians are starting to realize we can do something about.

Highly recommended: a trip to hell and back

I was thinking earlier this week about how my attitude toward life has changed since the two-year period during which my Bipolar Disorder symptoms were in full big-band swing. That included two winters (1998-1999 and 1999-2000) of severe clinical depression. During those winters, I spent months on end without a moment's happiness, confidence, clarity of mind or desire for human contact. My life has been blessed from childhood until the present, and I certainly can't claim to know true suffering, but within the range of my own experience, this was definitely the bottom. This was the bottom dropped out and dumped me into what lies below. Within the range of my own experience, this was hell.

Then, in March of 2000, my shrink got the drug cocktail right. I wasn't depressed any more. Haven't been since--not in the clinical sense. I visited hell, and then I came back. It went away. It was reversed. I got my "get out of jail free" card, and I blew that popsicle stand. And ever since, I've never (well, hardly ever) lost a strong sense that life is a gift, a blessing, something to be lived to the fullest and something for which no amount of thankfulness would begin to scratch the surface.

Now, I recognize that all of this has a lot to do with brain chemistry, which in my case is still being managed with a combination of lithium and something called risperdal, an antipsychotic. (No, I was at no point actually psychotic.) Also, as I've alluded to previously, as dark as it got during those two deep, gray winters, I never completely lost hope. There was no point when I really believed that it would never get better, and for that I'm immensely thankful as well--it's the reason I'm still alive. But on the whole, I have to count the whole experience as an astonishing blessing. A trip to hell and back may be the second-best thing that's ever happened to me. (Marrying Tina, who's the other reason I'm still alive, is the best.)

But the key is the "and back" part. Like the guy that got turned into the newt in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "I got better." Most people who do time in hell--in various hells of varying depths--never get to come back. When a loved one dies or is otherwise irrevocably separated from you, you don't come back. Not completely. Most people who live in conditions of affliction, extreme poverty, or terror don't get the sort of miraculous reversal that I was blessed with. So I'm not trying to argue that suffering is a good thing--far from it. But paradoxically, suffering, then suffering negated, was a blessing for me.

I know many people who can't believe that suffering could ever be God's will. God may (and does) turn suffering to good, but she never intends that it happen in the first place. As for me, I just don't know. When I look at my life, I don't know if it was God's will that I go through my depressions. Maybe there was no other way to wake me up. When I look at the life of Jesus Christ, I don't know whether it was God's will that he suffer and die on the cross. I certainly don't believe in a vindictive God who desires blood sacrifice, but it seems to me that the Christian story might require that the Passion was a necessity, not just an unfortunate accident that God turned to the great work that is the Resurrected Christ and the life he gives to his followers.

Hmm. I guess the message is that whatever the theological reality behind it (and, as usual, I'm more-or-less content to leave that a mystery), I'm living proof that the experience of suffering can become a blessing. If that has any chance of bringing a modicum of comfort to other folks in the midst of their own private hell, then please spread the word.