OK, You've Got Me Thinking.


It's not courage to look at what cannot be avoided and decide not to waste time and energy fretting about it - it's just common or garden variety laziness.

In a discussion on Being, we Christians are at a decided disadvantage because of what we believe about our Lord, as compared to the Buddha. Jesus had pretty much nothing to say (at least, directly) about the self, and about Being, and all the things in which I am so interested right at the moment. The teachings he left are slender, fragmentary and concerned more with behaviour than with metaphysics. Furthermore, his sayings were not recorded by himself, but by his followers who may or may not have fully understood what he was on about and who set them down in writing some decades after his death. Some of the most influential commentary on his life and work came from Paul who probably never met him - at least not in the everyday sense.

For Christians our faith is about Jesus - it is CHRISTianity after all, and although his teachings are vitally important who he was and what he was is even more important. We make the improbable claim that in the person of Jesus Bar-Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee who lived in the time of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, the "primordial purity, luminosity of consciousness, unimaginable wisdom and infinite love that spontaneously and freely gives expression to the universe" did an absolutely bizarre thing - became incarnate within the confines of the universe created by that infinite love. By this we don't mean the divinity which can be reasonably argued to adhere to all sentient beings (or indeed, to all things). We mean something else - that the transcendent God has taken form with all the limits that form implies. Further, the death and resurrection of Jesus have completed the act of incarnation in that they have wrought some change in the structure of the universe and in the relationship of human beings with Being. Our heritage is not a carefully worked out window into the human soul such as the Dharma. We say that when God chose to reveal the nature of ultimate truth God gave, not teaching or spiritual practice, but a person. We have to work out ourselves, in the light of our experience of that person, what our teaching and spiritual practice is.

We Christians worked at it for 300 years, then got terribly confused when the Church as an institution became integrated with the larger culture of which it was a part and the needs of the institution, the needs of the culture and the need to be a body mediating spiritual truth became horribly intertwined. We still worked on it all, of course, but often with restriction and compromise, not all of which was conscious and/or acknowledged. Now in the early 21st Century the intertwining has become frayed; the institution, at least the bit of it in the vestigial Roman Empire is fading and we are free, free, thank God almighty, free at last to be what we were meant to be. (Admittedly this freedom is a bit worrying to those of us with a stake in the church's pension fund.)

So my Christian task is to explain to others Jesus and what he means for the nature of Being and how we relate to it. Many of the explanations worked out over the last couple of millennia don't mean much to many Christian people these days, let alone those who have left the fold or never been part of it. We need new explanations and of course to explain it all to others I must first be able to explain it to myself. The Buddha's analysis of the nature of humanity is, in my opinion, faultless. He anticipates psychoanalysis and cognitive science (and in many cases, quantum physics) by 2,500 years. His prescription for practice cannot be ignored but how does this analysis and his wisely enunciated path gel with the experienced presence of The Old Wise One taking form in Mary's son? Surely there is a bridge that can be formed between the wisdom of the East and particularly of the Buddha and the experience of the West? Karen Armstrong calls this an Axial Age, a time when such bridges- new explanations and syntheses - are spontaneously arising in many different places. Is she right?

I have the answer in two words: Meister Eckhart. Particularly, what you say about the void resonates with ME's concept of The Ground, and with his conception of God as No-Thing. However, this also gives me a problem. Although I have a good grasp, or so I think, of what Meister Eckhart is saying, finding the words to explain it to others is a personal challenge. As C.S. Lewis said, "any fool can speak learned language. It is the vernacular that is the real test. If you can't put your faith into it then either you don't understand it or you don't believe it."

I hope this gives a couple a leads as to where Buddhism and Christianity can perhaps speak to each other and be mutually informed, speaking from the friendly eye of the Gospel.

Lots of love,


Anonymous said…
Your C.S. Lewis quote is vintage Lewis. This type of thing is an expression of his pretty fundamentalist type of faith. There are others “Either he was on the level of a person who thinks he is poached egg or he was the son of the living god!” Really? No middle ground? He couldn’t be someone who fasted for 40 days and had some pretty extraordinary experiences?
Another is “ They claim to see fern seed but they can’t even see an elephant at three paces!” Really? Maybe they weren’t claiming to see fern seed, maybe they all just had a hold of a different part of the elephant and were honestly trying to sort of work it out.
And then the one you quoted, “any fool can speak learned language. It is the vernacular that is the real test. If you can’t put your faith into it then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.” Really? . When Mr Beaver says “ I have heard that Aslan is on the move” my heart skips a beat. How do you put the fullness and richness of that into the vernacular. I may not believe in this particular allegorical Christ, but I can discern that beneath both metaphors there is something calling me.

How do we find out? Again I think it comes back to the personal responsibility of the spiritual journey. No one can explain it to me. Some can guide me to and discuss with me Meister Eckhart but in the end I have to read him and take ownership of the concepts for myself.

Kia Kaha
VenDr said…
"I have heard that Aslan is on the move" = vernacular.

"The map of reality cogniscent with the auditory input of beings filtering Being through the intermediary social map of language have conspired to produce the emergent notion that the shared metaphor of 'Aslan' which may or may not have phenomenological expression in a being, called for want of a better term 'lion' has intruded into our conscious space in a measurable kinesthetic way" = learned bullshit.
Anonymous said…
I concede that I may be in a bit of a muddle over "....the vernacular, that is the real test."
I can also see that Lewis didn't say "the vernacular is the Best Test" but it seems to me that he is making an exclusive case for the vernacular, but that just may be an incorrect interpretation on my part. Let me explain what was on my mind at the time of writing.

If you were to talk of love (Eros) you could express it say in three ways. I could use (1.) Specialist scientific language: " When the chemical signals from the snapses are translated into electrical signals the small gland......." or (2.) Vernacular: " Shite when I saw her rack me family benefit really started working overtime..." or (3.) Poetic :
"On all sides I see your waist of fog,
and your silence hunts down my afflicted hour;
my kisses anchor, and my moist desire nests in you with your arms of transparent stone ..... thus in deep hours I have seen, over the fields, the ears of wheat tolling in the mouth of the wind."

For me all three are legitimate expressions when used in their relevant contexts. For myself I like the poetic the best. When Mr Beaver says " I have heard that Aslan is on the move" I see this language as being a fragment of a larger story which works like a poem or a myth.
But as I have already written I may be muddled on this and have now dug the hole deeper.

I shall await your very sharp incisors.

Kia Kaha
VenDr said…
I don't think CS Lewis was Fundamentalist. He was a fairly conventional Anglican in belief and practice. He was a Neoplatonist and believed that the myths of all cultures contained genuine and reliable insights into the nature of God - reasons why many Fundamentalists don't even regard him as Christian. He made his living as an academic, teaching Medieval and Renaissance literature and earned himself endless scholarly derision for his popular radio broadcasts, children's books and works of popular theology. The remark on the vernacular was taken from a letter to a scholarly theologian, Neibuhr, if my memory serves me correctly, and should be seen in that context. His point was, I think, that unless your faith can be explained in simple terms accessible to the common sense of ordinary people, then it is not much use.

I have treasured this quote because it is profoundly true for me on a personal level. I never fully grasp something for myself until I can wrestle it into a form that I can transmit to other people. Hence the way I preach. Hence, I suppose, this blog.
NIE said…
So right, Kelvin. That is why since 1999 at St John's Roslyn you have touched so many people from academics and intellectuals to those who haven't had the privilege of tertiary study. You have led us back to the times of Jesus and into the skins of Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Peter as they followed and learned from this challenging Master against a background of oppression and hostility. We have seen how this Jesus lived a life that should the Way for us, as it was for those first Christians.
From there you then connect with our own often messy lives in the 21st century and we go out the doors to the daily grind with work to do and example to follow. You never give us your answers, but treat us as responsible adults capable of making our own choices.
Your grasp of the vernacular is a God-given gift to so many - in the pews and in your writings. May your leave give you more time to keep searching for the truth so you can continue to unpack what it really IS that draws us to our Creator and Ground of our Being.
Anonymous said…
Hmm.... I guess the meaning of the term fundamentalist is relative, changes over time and means different things to different people.
I am a really big fan of C.S.Lewis and I have recently finished reading what I think is the best yet biography of him by Alan Jacobs called "The Narninian". He doesn't flinch from examining some of the more controversial elements of Lewis' life. A really great read.

I agree that wrestling ideas into a form that you can transmit to other people is a great way of sorting out your thinking - I am finding it so.

Kia Kaha
VenDr said…
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VenDr said…
I think 'Fundamentalist' is fairly precise, and I've always found James Barr's book "Fundamentalism" quite helpful. Spong's "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism" has its moments also. I think Fundamentalists are those who approach life with a ready made answer and try to fit it to whatever question is asked. How old is the Earth? No matter what evidence is presented to some folk the answer will always be 4,500 years because the answer is decided before the question is asked or the evidence presented. So you get economic Fundamentalists: the answer to every question is privatisation or the free market or nationalisation or tax cuts. Or atheist fundamentalists. Or feminist fundamentalists or...
Barr says that the emotion underlying all fundamentalism is fear, and the desire to protect some experience which has, in the past assuaged that fear. I think he's right.
Anonymous said…
Ok, when you define the term like that I can see where you are coming from. I have always thought that people who believe that the world was created 4500 years ago, that God put fossils in the Jurassic record to fool scientists, that it was God talking to Moses when he was commanded to kill someone who was collecting firewood on the Sabbath and all the other murderous nonsense in the Petrarch as being bonkers and / or intellectually gutless, slothful and lazy. I thought fundamentalism was something else. I say it in such a forceful way because I think that the implications for the mind are every bit as destructive as any Salem witch trial, inquisition or crusade. What Lewis made of these specific old testament problems of the wrathful vengeful god I don’t know and would be very interested in any references or books in that regard.

I know that he thought that the Old Testament should be read as literature, the books being a hotchpotch of history, myth, story, revelation, prophecy and poetry. I guess in your terms that doesn't make him a fundamentalists.

To me he seems like a New Testament fundamentalist because he believed that the events described were literally true within a style of first person reportage. He believed in miracles (wrote a good book on them), the resurrection and believed that Jesus was the incarnation of God. Compare this position with some American TV evangelist who use the gospel for wealth creation, wars, nuclear armaments, destructive American foreign policy and worse. I don’t define these people as fundamentalists, I just think they are nutters.

During Lewis' main publication period it could be said that he was defending orthodoxy when compared to others of this period who were promoting ideas of myth and metaphor in the new testament (if my memory serves me correctly – Karl Barth). From our reference point in history he seems to me a New Testament fundamentalists when compared to those I think were termed the demythogisers.
Having said all that I see very well the point and definition you are making.

Kia Kaha
Anonymous said…
Whoops that's Pentateuch, not Petrarch. I should have made better use of the vernacular and just written 'the first five books in the Old Testament.' :)

Kia Kaha
Anonymous said…
Relationship to Buddhism

The central theme of Eckhart's German sermons is the presence of God in the individual soul, and the dignity of the soul of the just man. Although he elaborated on this theme, he rarely departed from it. In one sermon, Eckhart gives the following summary of his message:

"When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature."
VenDr said…
One of the things I like about Eckhart is that he took preaching seriously. He taught in German, not Latin, and he preached to the unlettered and laboured to make himself understood to them. It's CS Lewis and the vernacular again. One of the disadvantages of this approach for later scholars has been that there is a certain amount of "dumbing up" to be done - reconstructing from his vernacular utterances something of the subtlety of th scholarly thought that lay behind them.

This process is complicated for two reasons: his later editors did not always understand what he was banging on about, and "corrected" him according to their own lights. Also, Eckhart was not wildly popular with the Church authorities who couldn't understand him and therefore concluded he must be heretical. Some of his contemporaries and later editors have altered his texts to make them conform more closely to conventional Christian teaching. It can be hard to extract the real Eckhart from the raw texts.

One quite successful extraction of Eckhart's teaching is neither Christian nor Buddhist. The new age teacher Eckhart Tolle (the name is a deliberate steal. Or more kindly, a tribute)whose book "The Power Of Now" gives the best translation of Meister Eckart's thought into contemporary vernacular that I have seen. The book is wildly popular in New Age circles, and even amongst the general populace. Eckhart Tolle gives me hope that Meister Eckhart can be reinterpreted with a more authentic Christian background into 21st Century vernacular and made accessible to the people I am called to be amongst.
Anonymous said…
I found this interesting quote:

" If we turn from the forms, produced by external circumstances, and go to the root of things, we shall find that Sakyamuni {(Gautama / Buddha)} and Meister Eckhart teach the same thing; only that the former dared to express his ideas plainly and positively, whereas Eckhart is obliged to clothe them in the garment of the Christian myth, and to adapt his expressions thereto."

– Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. XLVIII

The practical meditation practise of Eckhart leads him to the heart of Buddhist experience - perhaps the problem of Christianity is that it is still too much tied up with 'What one has to believe' rather than the practical application of a path.

I have read Tolles new book 'A New Earth' and visited his web site etc - I feel somewhat uneasy about him, the words 'an industry' and 'Guru' come to mind - but as you point out the vernacular is the place where complex ideas can be expressed and made accessible, its just a shame that even for a modest mind such as mine he is so monumentally repetitive.
VenDr said…
I think you're right to be uneasy about Eckhart Tolle. Why would somebody be so indebted to Meister Eckhart that he changes his name, and yet never mention the Meister in any of the accounts of his own enlightenment? As you say, his work does have the stamp of the New Age spirituality industry all over it.

The quote from Schopenhauer is accurate too, I believe in that what Meister Eckhart and the Buddha taught are very very close. I'm not sure that Schopenhauer's assessment of Eckhart being forced to shoehorn his understandings into Christian belief are quite accurate though. I hope that Eckhart's Christianity is, instead, integral to his insight and his expression of it. I guess this is what I want to try and find out, and I suppose as a paid up member of the Church's pension fund I will find myself with a bit of dilemma if Schopenhauer turns out to be right!
Anonymous said…
Lewis could certainly be called a 'Fundamentalist' in the original sense of that word, with ref. to the 'Fundamentalist/Liberal' controversy and the issuance of 'The Fundamentals' booklets by Warfield, Machen etc. Warfield believed in the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, as well as theistic evolution. He was not a 'Young Earth Creationist'. Lewis expressed no clear conviction about Adam, whether he was an individual or a collective ('mankind') of hominids specially endowed by God with a soul, but he was sure there was a historical fall. He readily recognised the poetic and symbolic language in Genesis. Where the NT was concerned, Lewis unequivocally affirmed the virginal conception, the bodily resurrection and the Gospel miracles.
So that makes him, in the original Warfield/Machen sense, a 'Fundamentalist'; but not a 'Fundamentalist' in the narrower way that term has been used in the past 40 or more years (YEC etc); but yes, a 'Fundamentalist' in the way that Spong and others have characterised (scorned) Great Tradition orthodoxy.
So what does that tell us? That he term 'Fundamentalist' is of very little use today unless it is clearly defined; otherwise, it will generate more heat than light. It is scarcely more than a polemical code word for lazy journalists.
Barr didn't help matters by treating conservative evangelicalism under the same term.
Lewis himself inclined more to High Anglicanism, and I imagine if he was alive today (sub specie carnis) he would have become a Roman Catholic, just as J. Budjizewski, Doug Farrow, R. R. Reno and other former Anglican/Episcopalian academics have done. He could see tnhe trajectories already in the 1950s.
Kia Kaha asks if there is a middle ground between 'a poached egg and the Son of God'. Lewis's famous trilemma ('liar, lunatic or Lord?') was in reality a quadrilemma: 'legend' is the fourth possibility that sceptical 20th century scholarship opted for. Lewis did address this a bit in crossing swords with Bultmann. Craig Blomberg, 'The Historical Reliability of the Gospels', and Richard Bauckham, 'Jesus and his Eyewitnesses', are two substantial works that grapple with this question very strongly on the side of historicity.
Kelvin, why do you think St Paul may have misunderstood or misrepresented Jesus? He was an apostle in the company of apostles. How can we claim to know better today?

I have been praying for you and am very pleased to hear of your bone scan.

VenDr said…
I didn't say Paul misunderstand or misrepresented Jesus, I said that Paul had never met Jesus. I meant to talk about the body of teaching left by Jesus,in comparison to the body of teaching left by the Buddha, and to make the point that important though Jesus' teaching is, who he is and what he did is of greater importance.

The Gospel story is a story of the disciples misunderstanding Jesus right to the very end. Matthew 28:17 tells us that some of the eleven doubted even after an encounter with the risen Lord. The next three hundred years or so of the church's history are characterised by the on-going debate as to what it was, exactly, that the apostles' understanding of Jesus was. There was, and is, no clarity or uniformity, except that agreed on by the church several centuries after the event.

The medieval mystics speak of an experience of God which was at variance enough with the church's established position (the teaching of the apostles) that some of them were suppressed. My reading of many of Jesus' recorded sayings shows that it is at least arguable that Jesus was talking of the same experience, using a similar world view as the mystics. Indeed, to my eyes, passages like the sermon on the mount make far more sense if seen through the lens of Eckhartian mysticism than otherwise.

If Jesus was speaking of this type of encounter with God, I don't think Paul got it. That's not to say he misrepresented Jesus, though it might be said that he didn't represent him as fully as he might.
Anonymous said…
Kelvin: but Paul *did* meet Jesus, on the Damascus Road and, according to Acts, on other visionary occasions (in the Temple; on the ship in the Med). 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?' This is to say nothing of his mystical experience alluded to in 2 Cor 12.
As for Paul's acquaintance with Jesus' teaching, this is deeply explored in David Wenham's book on 'Paul and Jesus', more briefly in F F Bruce's study.
I agree with you that, in some sense, who Jesus is and what he did, is 'more important' than what he taught. But we cannot so easily separate what he taught from who he is and what he did. Is he really God incarnate who gave his life to redeem us from sin? That's what John's Gospel and Mark 10.45 affirm. Do we believe Jesus said this about himself? And was he right?
I don't see Paul say anything different in Romans 3.21-25 and Philippians 2; Col. 1.15-20.
Nor do I buy the Dan Brown line that 'it was anything goes' until the nasty old Council of Nicea shut down the options. St Ignatius of Antioch understood very clearly what Paul, John and Hebrews taught about Christ as God Incarnate and he says so in his letter to the Ephesians.
I confess I know very little about medieval European mysticism; but what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is immediately understandable in a first century Jewish context. What do you find unclear or mysterious about it?

VenDr said…
Yes, Jesus is God incarnate. Yes, his death and resurrection has redeemed the world. Note: the world, not merely those whose culture and opportunities have led them to say the sinner's prayer. To say the person of Jesus is "more important" than his teaching is of course unfortunate, but I couldn't think of a better expression. Of course Jesus' teaching is inseparable from his being, but let's be frank, we have precious little of it. I can only assume we have so little because we don't need much - again, because it's the person, not the teaching that saves us. With Buddhists, on the other hand, the Dharma, the teaching,and definitely NOT the person of the Buddha is everything.

Dan Brown is of course wrong but not entirely. The early church was heterodox in a way which would not have been workable in the official faith of the Roman Empire - hence the creeds and the canon to settle all those pesky debates once and for all.

My opinion is that with the death of Christendom we are entering an age with some characteristics in common with the first three centuries of the church. Heterodoxy is on the rise again. This means that to maintain our viability with our own people as much as to explain ourselves to the world we will have to revisit those old questions of being and faith with a new vigour and be prepared to defend our positions against newly vocal and informed opposition.
Anonymous said…
Brian: You ask an interesting question. “How can we claim to know better today?” This statement implies that there was a time when things were clearer or better understood. Unfortunately the historical evidence is that from the first century, what exactly happened and what it means has been the subject of debate and conjecture. Another statement you make is “……Great Tradition Orthodoxy” Again implying a body of knowledge which is has pretty much got things sorted out. I would like to listen to a debate on this by an Anglican Archbishop and any of the many Roman Catholic Popes.

But let’s go back closer to the genesis of Christianity before the Council at Nicaea and see who we will listen to. Is it the Docetists? The Ebionites? The Arians? Or maybe the Monarchains? The fact is that when the early church raised its head after savage persecutions and started to try and define exactly what it all meant they found much to disagree on. The Doctrine of the Trinity was one of many theories that were established to try and explain theological problems that arose. Also over the first three hundred years AD books came in and out of favour in the New Testament and the canon was not finalised until about AD 400. In circa AD300 6 books that had been in the canon for two hundred years were excluded. If you add in the Gnostic works and other apocryphal books and look at the last approx 1660 years since Constantine, years of two great schisms (Eastern and Western Orthodoxy, Protestant and Catholic) it begs the question: Why exactly should we not think we know better today? - For myself I certainly do.

In Christianity we are asked to believe that in one moment amongst immense diversity and history one event has eternal implications for the each one personally and for the universe as a whole. It’s a real shame none of it is a whole lot clearer.

What I like about Buddhism is that the Buddha said – don’t accept anything unless you can verify it for yourself. Find out from your own experience whether things are true or not.
Anonymous said…
I can venture only a very brief reply for the moment, so please forgive the 'dogmatic' (!) feel - if I have more time later I may respond in more detail.

1. Kelvin: actually we have a LOT of Jesus' teaching (ipsissima vox) - four gospels worth is plenty to keep us thinking and obeying all our lives - unless you sign up with the 'Jesus Seminar' lot. And we have Paul and the other apostles who have the mind of Christ. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to guide his church.
OTOH, how much of Buddhist tradition goes back to Siddatha is uncertain and doesn't matter anyway because Buddhism isn't an historical religion (or a religion for that matter). If it's true, it's timelessly true.
2. Bauer's thesis of heresy and orthodoxy is manifestly not true. The letters of Ignatius and the regula fidei show an early concern for doctrinal truth. But when you measure Tertullian's writings and the Shepherd of Hermas with the NT, you can see a real declension in understanding of the Gospel into legalism. But contrast the Epistle to Diognetus - almost Lutheran!
3. Anon: Docetism, Arianism Ebionitism and monarchianism were all rightly rejected on the basis of the accepted NT canon. Problems over the canon were more to do with chiliasm than christology.
4. "What I like about Buddhism is that the Buddha said – don’t accept anything unless you can verify it for yourself. Find out from your own experience whether things are true or not."
Alas, I am not clever enough and will not live long enough in any case. I will stick with divine revelation.

VenDr said…
Brian thank you for posting. You are welcome to post as often and as voluminously as you like. It is always a great pleasure to hear an intelligent and learned person discourse on matters of faith. Personally, the pleasure of conversation is increased when the other conversant disagrees with me, for there is the opportunity to learn and be drawn closer to the truth.

Like you, I hope I am proceeding via the media of divine revelation; except, of course, we may differ somewhat in our opinions of where the divine revelation is to be found and in what it consists of.;)
Anonymous said…
Very very interesting.
VenDr said…
... and I think that the most any of can say is that "I will stick with my idea of what divine revelation might be"