Monday, June 25, 2007

Christian, Atheist, Buddhist

We take who we are forward with us. Yes, we are certainly reborn every moment, and if we are open to that, really aware of it, then a wonderful breakthrough, or liberation, can occur. Yet we take our experiences with us. We are composed of transient phenomena to be sure, or at least if we accept the core teachings of Buddhism. But we are also like mosaics. Just like the works of an artist are sometimes tied to different times in the artist's creative life ("this is from his crayon period", "these is from her yellow years"), our collective works of living are also a part of us. Even if we no longer feel the same way or have the same beliefs as we did in various times of our lives, they still contributed to how we learned to relate to the world.

I pondered this months ago when reading something by Clark Strand about an interesting occurrence among some Western Buddhists with whom he had interacted. His point, as I understood it, was that many people in the West who come to Buddhism aren't comfortable with what they were raised to believe in as part of the Christian faith. To put this in my own terms, this includes ideas about God as a big Creator bully who is also the heart of love, or the inconsistencies of various practices and doctrines, or whatever - these had turned people off from religion (even though, I might interject, there are more mature and sophisticated Christian beliefs out there). So hey, here is Buddhism which doesn't even need to be called a religion if we don't want, and it doesn't spell out obedience to the whims of a seemingly bipolar Supreme Being, and we don't have to accept the supernatural sounding elements, so it's still a connection to Something greater than ourselves and a commitment to the spiritual values of wisdom and compassion, but without all the stuff that a lot of people have hang-ups over.

So, continuing what I took away from what Clark had written, he points out that like it or not, much of the Western culture is extremely Christianized. Not just the obvious stuff like the holiday or obviously religious writings or musical compositions or pieces of artwork, but in a myriad of subtle ways. In effect, we are so immersed in Christian symbolism, we don't typically notice most of it because we take it for granted. His example is talking to a young woman, as I recall, about her practice and her spirituality and he was using certain Christian terms and concepts to relate a particular insight. She wasn't able to get past the association of these terms and concepts with something she had rejected, even though as Strand put it, she was using other Christianity-derived concepts and references in her argument to prove she didn't see the world in such perspective.

Which brings us back to the idea that we take our experiences with us. Even if we weren't practicing Christians, if we were raised in the West we have a heavy Christian element in our cultural foundation. It's just there. And besides, to totally erase any appreciation of Christian imagery, even if we are not Christians, is to fail to appreciate so much of our history as expressed in these terms.

I spent many years as a Christian, so, for me, it's more than just a passive cultural influence and set of popular references. I actively attempted to grasp matters both spiritual and otherwise through the prism of (a rather limited form of) Christian theology. So, like it or not, there are certain things - prayers, songs, images, etc - which are going to provoke a response. And I don't just mean a memory or an old association between how I felt at age whatever and some sight or smell which triggers a kind of flashback. I mean that, for example, in trying to appreciate the Bodhisattva ideal, I do so with a grounding in the Gospel.

I can read the story of Ksitigharba, for example, who vows to save all those lost and suffering in the Hell realms, but I acknowledge that when I attempt to deeply meditate on such unwavering sacrifice and devotion to the salvation of the worst offenders and "least deserving", this is connected to my early appreciation of such sacrifice by Christ on the Cross. Yet that doesn't mean I believe in a historically literal crucifixion and bodily resurrection.

So, I acknowledge that while I don't hold to many of the beliefs I once did, especially the literal/historical elements of significant portions of the Bible, I still acknowledge there is a greater truth found in that collection of books which I could not fully appreciate when I was a "believer". In fact, it took a stroll through atheism and then Buddhism to finally come to appreciate just how much wisdom is actually contained in the Bible!

Speaking of my atheism, what I took from it was not really atheism as many people appreciate it. I suppose it was a logical step when I began to question theism as it is often presented. But in keeping an open mind I realized after a while I had reached an impasse. Skepticism for the sake of skepticism didn't lead me to new insights. It was too safe to sit away from the spiritual journey and snipe at the obvious shortcomings of many traveling various religious paths. Yes, I had stripped my beliefs down, ground them down, grinding my assumptions about everything spiritual and religious to dust. But having torn down the old edifice, that left a question - now that I had a kind of fresh start, what was next? If I followed the principles of inquiry and honesty that had led me this far, where would they take me next? Yes, it would be leaving the what had the appearance of an "objective" safe haven, but so what? Some truths cannot be found in debating philosophy or in a science lab - they are the domain of deeply personal experience.

But I was shy, so to speak, and still somewhat cynical with regard to religion, and so as I described above for someone in this position, Buddhism seemed like a good bet. And I found had to keep re-evaluating how I used certain terms and concepts, finding they meant more than the classic theist-atheist debate would allow. I began and continue to explore these deeper subtleties of spirituality and religion, and with this exploration a treasure trove of challenges and insights I had neglected both as an conservative Protestant evangelical Christian and as an avowed "non-believer".

That is why I have referred to my current position with regard to the traditional theist-atheist debate as post-theist: that is, I am not limited by the rigid definitions of that dichotomy. If there is something worthwhile associated with more secular thought, great. If there is something worthwhile from a point of view based on the premise of a Higher Power, awesome. Nor am I the first to make this journey. It happens all the time. There are many works of theology and philosophy which hint at or directly tackle ideas that both draw on and transcend such categories.

As for the labels themselves, I don't use Christian just because I don't think 99% of Christians would approve of what would be my form of Christianity, were I to declare myself one of their fold. Similarly, I don't think that atheists would really care for the fact that my beliefs aren't strictly, well, atheistic, at least not except in the broadest sense, and certainly not in the popular usage. Considering I practice Buddhism, and that Buddhists, at least here in the West, tend to tolerate and even celebrate eclecticism in one's beliefs, I feel comfortable using that term, but that doesn't mean I am rejecting my past. It means I am opening myself to the present.

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  1. I have experienced much of what you write in the evolving steps from childhood Christianity to skepticism to bitter denunciation of the fratricidal sky god to beckoning of the Dharma as I seek to regain compassion and loving kindness.

    My center of gravity as to my consciousness is post-modern--orienting to the principles of diversity, egalantarism and multi-culturalism.

    I acknowledge the prevalance of Christian cultural elements and accept that as part of the reality of my enviornment. I never thought atheism fit as it has such political and hostile context. I accept that there is a mystery that in this moment I do not have a lable or category for.

    My task is to sit on the edge of the unknown without expectation and observe moment to moment as best I can.

  2. ----------------------------------
    My center of gravity as to my consciousness is post-modern--orienting to the principles of diversity, egalantarism and multi-culturalism...

    My task is to sit on the edge of the unknown without expectation and observe moment to moment as best I can.


    Jump in - the water's fine. ;^)

  3. I grew up in a conservative Christian environment and carry those experiences with me.

    I am now an agnostic-atheist but with bhudda tendencies. My internal spirituality begs me to believe in something beyond my own senses... not in a deity that controls and judges but in the bhudda consciousness that you describe. This 'feeling of something more' makes the most sense both rationally and emotionally. I struggle with atheist friends who deny this and who propose rationality and humanism responses to the big questions raised in spirituality. I would absolutely promote rational and critical thinking, but I would never deny the yearning emotional core in all of us. A core that is not placated by logic.

    I hope your blog goes well... I have been disheartened a bit by the torrent of atheist content on the web. Promoting secular policies in government and in human rights is the correct focus for atheism. Not in the levels of condecension that I read out there whenever someone describes their spiritual needs.


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