Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Living Buddha, Living Christ; Part 1

Before break, my Buddhist friend John and I traded books to read. I gave him a copy of Tim Keller's The Reason for God and he gave me Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh. I've decided to journal my thoughts on each chapter.

Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 and is still an active Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet, and peace activist. According to a quote from The Washington Post on the book's back cover, Hanh's message is that "peace, love, and compassion are central to the teachings of Buddha and Christ, and people of both faiths should be tolerant of one another." From what I know of Buddhist ethics, there is a significant amount of overlap with Christianity (as there is with most faiths), but there are some significant distinctions as well. I'm interested to see how much the book acknowledges these distinctions and, if so, whether it tries to resolve or dismiss them.

One thing that intrigues me is a quote on the back from Catholic writer and activist Thomas Merton. Merton says, "Thich Nhat Hanh is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things the exact same way." I don't know a lot about Merton, but I know a lot of Christians who admire his work. At one of my favorite blogs, Internet Monk, his name is mentioned frequently. He's a guy who is admired, read, and quoted by people who take the Bible seriously. If Hanh sees things the same way as Merton, I'm sure some of the Christians who admire Merton would admire Hanh, too. This makes me very curious about what Hanh has to say.


The intro to the book (not written by Hanh), says that Hanh "does not take the easy way out of ecumenical discussion by ignoring disagreement." Hanh "expresses deep respect and appreciation for many elements of Christian tradition" but he "also points out elements of Christian tradition that foster religious intolerance and have led to religious hatred."

Hanh, the intro says, disagrees with John Paul II's affirmation that "Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity." He responds, "this statement does not seem to reflect the deep mystery of the oneness of the Trinity. It also does not reflect the fact that Christ is also the Son of Man. All Christians, while praying to God, address Him as Father. Of course Christ is unique. But who is not unique? Socrates, Mohammed, the Buddha, you, and I are all unique. The idea behind the statement, however, is the notion that Christianity provides the only way of salvation and all other religious traditions are of no use. This attitude excludes dialogues and fosters religious intolerance and discrimination. It does not help."

I agree with Hanh that a theology of exclusivism can lead to religious intolerance and hatred. However, we need to recognize that it is impossible to avoid exclusivism altogether. An exclusivist is someone who holds that one particular perspective is correct, and the inclusivist does this, too. The inclusivist believes that all people who believe that there is only one path to salvation are wrong. Therefore, the inclusivist is also at risk for being intolerant or hateful toward the exclusivists, just as the exclusivist is at risk for being intolerant or hateful toward the inclusivists and/or other forms of exclusivism.

Hahn says that an attitude of exclusivism "does not help" in interfaith dialogue, but interfaith dialogue is not really interfaith dialogue if the faiths are not being truly represented. The fact of the matter is that traditional Christianity looks to the Bible as a primary source of spiritual truth, and within the Bible St. Paul writes the exact words that Hanh criticizes John Paul II for: There is but one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus (1st Timothy 2:5).

If Hanh is saying Christians must abandon the idea that Christ is the one mediator between God and man, is he also saying that we must abandon the idea of Biblical authority? Hanh says that he likes the idea of the Trinity, but the concept of the Trinity is derived from the Bible. If Hanh wants us to reject certain ideas in the Bible but embrace other ones, to what authority do we appeal in choosing between the ideas?

For the Christian, of course, Hanh's downplaying of Christ's uniqueness sounds warning bells. Yes, all human beings are unique, but Christian doctrine has always taught that Christ's uniqueness transcends all other uniqueness. He is not just another color in the box of crayons. He is the manufacturer of all the crayons.

However, I appreciate that Hanh appeals to more than just the ideal of religious tolerance in rejecting Christianity's exclusivism. He also appeals to ideas within Christianity. If God the Father and God the Son are one, he says, then doesn't the statement that "there is but one mediator between God and man - the man Christ Jesus" fail to acknowledge that oneness? In other words, if Jesus is God and Jesus is the mediator between God and man, doesn't it then follow that God is his own mediator? If God is the mediator between Himself and man, doesn't that mean that God could be speak to the world through many different words and concepts besides just the one we refer to as "Christ"?

I think there are several problems with this argument. As I already mentioned, it borrows a concept from Scripture (the Trinity) as the basis of its argument but then undermines that concept by using it to argue against the authority of Scripture. As C.S. Lewis would say, it is an argument that "saws off the branch on which it sits." The other problem is that it fails to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity does say that God the Father and God the Son are both God, but that doesn't permit us the freedom to substitute one name for the other - particularly in the case of 1st Timothy 2:5. I think Paul's point is not that God is His own mediator, but that the only way we can really know God is through God as expressed in Jesus Christ. There is but one mediator between God and man - and that mediator is the man from heaven who suffered and died on a cross. If we want to know who God is, we must have an encounter with this man.

I also think Hanh is wrong to suggest that one who affirms Christ as the only mediator between God and man must necessarily believe that all other religious traditions are of no use. Even though I think we lack clarity in our understanding of God apart from Christ, and even though I think Christ's sacrifice is necessary for the salvation of any soul who ends up saved, I wouldn't go so far as to say I think that all other religious traditions are of no use. I believe many other religious traditions contain truth. I think that wherever there is truth, goodness, and beauty, the Spirit of God is involved, and no truth, goodness, or beauty is of no use. However, I don't think there is any other person or religious tradition in which "the fullness of God" has been revealed apart from Jesus Christ (Col. 2:9).

The writer of the intro agrees with Hanh's inclusivist perspective because of her "exploration into the earliest history of Christianity." In 1947, she says, a large collection of ancient Christian gospels and other writings were found in Upper Egypt. These were gnostic writings - books apparently salvaged from the library of the earliest Christian monastery in Egypt after the archbishop of Alexandria ordered the monks to destroy all books he deemed heretical. One of these supposed Gospels - the "Gospel of Thomas" - dates twenty years before any of the New Testament gospels were written (according to Helmut Koester, Professor of New Testament at Harvard University). These books view Jesus "as one through whom the divine was manifested and through whose example and teaching one can hope for similar enlightenment." In other words, they teach a version of Christianity and a perspective of Christ that seems quite in line with Hanh's.

The intro writer goes on to quote passages from the Gospel of Thomas, arguing that Jesus did not teach that he was the "only begotten Son of God" (as John later insisted) but that "we are the children of God."  The Gospel of Thomas, she says, tells of a Jesus who said we need to look inside ourselves - not beyond ourselves - for enlightenment.

So, what is the traditional Christian supposed to make of all this? Is the Gospel of Thomas really older than the Biblical gospels? Does it really quote Jesus accurately? If not, why did the writer attribute false quotations to Jesus?

According to Wikipedia, not everyone agrees with Helmut Koester (in fact, most do not). There are two camps of scholars - one that dates the Gospel between 50-100AD, and one that dates it from the second century (after the canonical Gospels had been written). After a brief overview of the Wikipedia page, I can see that it would take more time than I have available to make any kind of qualified judgement about the historicity of the Gospel. I am confident, though, that if there ever was a group of people living in 30-150AD who were interested in preserving Christ's teachings accurately, that group would be much more qualified to pass judgement on the historicity of the Gospel of Thomas than me. If those people were the ones assembling the canon of Scripture, they did not see Thomas's Gospel as historical. The Wikipedia page says that several early church fathers (3rd century) openly dismissed the Gospel of Thomas. This fact should count for something.

Next time: Chapter 1.

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