Buddhism and Christianity

I am not a theologian. Theology is an area of study more dangerous and difficult than almost any other. Still, I’m going to risk some words.

It is not uncommon these days to hear Christians reporting that a study of Buddhism or some experience of its practices has helped them to understand their own religion. It has certainly helped me. I was brought up a Christian, regular church attendance, Sunday school, eventually the dizzy heights of an ‘O’ level in ‘Divinity’. But I found that the doctrine made no sense to me just as soon as I started to think about it, somewhere around the age of twelve. Nor did it make any more sense until about forty years later, when I discovered Buddhism. The explanatory power of Buddhist doctrine can be explained by two features. It is fundamental, and its explanatory literature is vast and homogenous.

Because it is a fundamental doctrine it does not end in a confusing muddle of irresolvable conflicts of opinion over the logical and ontological relationship between the three terms of the Holy Trinity and other such conceptual muddles. It is almost beyond belief how much trouble this problem has caused Christianity over the centuries. Arianism, Nestorianism, Modalism, Subordinationism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism and so on, all have had their day, and none have ever quite gone away. Nor have Unitarianism and Binitarianism. Nor has the idea that Trinitarianism is simply a false interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles.

Whitehead notes of Christianity that it is ‘a religion is search of a metaphysic’. If we view this religion in the broadest terms then this may be an unfair criticism, but the most metaphysically sound form of Christianity is not the most popular, and it is not the one adopted by the Western Church, the one of which Whitehead would have been speaking.

Because it did not interpret Jesus as a Buddhist would, at least in the mainstream of its institutional history, Christianity evolved as a dogmatic monotheism for which the Buddha’s teachings would be not merely heterodox but profoundly heretical. Consequently, it has been left without a fundamental theory. It cannot make sense of the relationship between the parts of the Holy Trinity. The council of Nicea settled the matter by decree but a decree is not an explanation. The issue rumbles on today.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, ‘I and the Father are One’. If Father and Son are One, then how can we say that Jesus was truly a man, just as we are? Yet the entire message of the New Testament is that Jesus was truly a man. We might easily see this as a dilemma. The problem, if I may risk an opinion, is not that it would be wrong to believe that Jesus was a man, nor that he was somehow both God and Man. It would be to believe that these are essentially different things. If we believe this, then the relationship between the parts of the Trinity becomes paradoxical.

This where Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way’ doctrine and theory of emptiness comes into its own. It is reductionist with a vengeance, and has no problem with reducing the whole of existence. It does this by a trick known as ‘nondualism’. On this view there would not be two things, and it would be impossible for a man not to be God. It would, of course, be all too easy to forget it. (Of course, ‘God’ here would be a misleading term, but we’re walking a tightrope between quite different terminologies).

On this view Jesus would be Man, just like you and me, and also God, just like you and me. This would be explained in Buddhism by the doctrine of Two Worlds or Two Truths as formulated by Nagarjuna. There would be these two worlds but for an ultimate view the two worlds would be one. The Holy Spirit gives us an extra variable, and it may be the most elusive, but the solution would be same. Reality would be advaita, ‘not-two’, and ultimately all relationships would be one of identity.

This is not the place to delve into Buddhism’s solution for theological problems, but the main point here is that it does offer us one. We are not left with awkward questions begging, like who created God, how could He divide into three, and how, if these are different things, could Jesus be a human being and yet also an incarnation of God.

The Buddhist solution for existence would be in line with certain Christian interpretations of the Trinity but within the Church it has to compete with various other interpretations with which it would not be consistent. The complex and difficult legalistic arguments between these interpretations make Christian theology a no-go area for anyone but a dedicated scholar. Armed with some theoretical understanding of Nagarjuna’s theory of two worlds and his Middle Way doctrine, however, these difficult topics are much easier to approach and it becomes possible to see the wood for the trees. Armed, additionally, with a little understanding gained through meditative practice, we may lose interest in these logico-theological questions, while we may find our faith in Jesus much enhanced.

Christians are often horrified that their fellows may sometimes jump ship for Buddhism. They need not be worried. I doubt there is any better argument or justification for the teachings of the New Testament than the Buddhist sutras. To become a Buddhist is not to reject Jesus but to adopt a certain interpretation of his life and works. His mission lasted a mere two years and it would not be surprising if the teachings of the Buddha, who had forty years to pass on his knowledge, shed some light on them.

At any rate, after forty years of avid scepticism this explorer was not led by his discovery of Buddhist teachings to a rejection of Jesus, who had been long ago rejected in any case, but to a new and much deeper respect for the wisdom and skill of his teachings, and even to a belief in their truth.

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4 Responses to Buddhism and Christianity

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Somewhat off topic of your OP, but the limited reading I’ve done in the last couple days on Buddhist epistemology/philosophy of language is pretty interesting – seems that thinking that things aren’t as they appear is pretty much half the battle.

  2. guymax says:

    Very true. If we think that things are as they appear then Buddhism, and mysticism in general, will appear hopelessly ad hoc.

  3. Jnana Hodson says:

    A much different understanding of Christ emerges when one applies an awareness of the Greek philosophy of Logos, which is usually translated as the Word in the opening of the gospel of John.
    Out of this, essentially, it is possible to read much of the New Testament as equating Christ with the Light and also with the Holy Spirit, which then infuse the person of Jesus.
    Sound similar to Buddhism here?
    Remember, too, that Trinity is a term that does not appear in Scripture but was formulated later.
    I know that you’re directing your examination at conventional Christianity, but it is exciting to discover that there are meaningful New Testament alternatives.

  4. guymax says:

    Hi Jnana – Thanks for dropping by. Yes, there’s nothing very new in what I’m saying here. It is amazing how much of what we are taught as being necessary dogma was, as you say, formulated later and thus open to debate. .

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