Friday, March 28, 2014

Recovering Christian Mysticism through Interfaith Conversation

What follows is a reflection I wrote following my conversation with Dennis Hunter, a Buddhist writer I met last year in New York City. You can check out Dennis's writing here. This writing derives from an assignment I recently completed for a "Scriptures of the World" course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I'm more and more thinking about how all sorts of powerful spiritual/ mystical practices have been neglected by the Lutheran theological tradition, and how important it is to recover such practices. Interfaith conversation with our Buddhist sisters and brothers, it seems, can help greatly in this regard. What are your thoughts? I'd love to receive some feedback and thanks for reading!

I met Dennis Hunter, a Vajrayana Buddhist writer, roughly a year ago on a Sunday afternoon while on internship in New York City. Dennis and I struck up a conversation regarding his own Buddhist practice and the similarity of various forms of Christian mysticism, particularly the work of Thomas Merton. A year later while in New York for the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, I got in touch with Dennis about engaging in further dialogue around his use of scripture and how this informs his daily practice. While we were not able to meet in person, we were able have a roughly forty minute phone conversation. Coming from my own past experiences as a nominal Buddhist in college and my growing interest in Christian mysticism, I thought Dennis brought up some profound points that will greatly influence how I engage both Christian and non-Christian scriptures as I minister in our increasingly pluralistic, globalized age.

We began our conversation speaking about the basics of Buddhist scripture, highlighting how sacred texts have continued to multiply across the centuries since adding to the canon (if one could even use this term in Buddhism) is much less problematic than in Christianity. Different schools of Buddhism also hold different collections of texts as sacred. The Theravada school focuses primarily on the tripitaka texts, which are considered the Buddha’s earliest teachings, while Mahayana states the Buddha went through multiple stages of teachings and thus considers additional texts canonical, including the well-known Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra. Finally, Vajrayana (the school Dennis most closely ascribes to) sees the Buddha as having “turned the world of dharma three times” through his teachings and thus ascribes to additional texts that speak of the inherent “Buddha nature” of all beings that lies beneath the many layers of dharma that obscure reality. In this way, a central notion of Buddha nature is that you only need to become what you already are. While this large library of texts, along with secondary and tertiary commentary, is considered sacred and literally placed on the altars of many Buddhist temples, at least in Vajrayana a practitioner’s direct relationship with the scripture often takes a secondary place to her or his personal relationship with a guru.

We also dove into some fascinating conversation around the ethics/ moral implications of our respective scriptural teachings, which Dennis also supplemented later on by sending me a blog post he wrote on the subject. In his view, Buddhist ethics can be boiled down to three basic tenets: refraining from causing harm (to self or others), practicing virtue (doing good or creating benefit) and taming/ training the mind completely. Dennis also stressed that the ethical teachings of his scriptures are not the commandments of a sovereign, creator God but are rather common-sense principles that can be tested in everyday life. Actions cannot be classified in a simple right/wrong dichotomy in the Buddhist ethical system, but are rather shaped by an individual’s intentions and circumstances. These three basic tenets are further refined through various Buddhist interpretations of the Eightfold Noble Path, Ten Virtuous/ Non-Virtuous Actions and (especially for lay individuals) the Five Precepts: refraining from killing, refraining from stealing, refraining from sexual misconduct, refraining from wrong speech and refraining from abuse of intoxicants.

Conversation with Dennis concerning the ethical implications of Buddhist scriptural teachings in my mind convicts Christianity’s traditional use of the Bible to construct its moral systems, and perhaps clarifies where we are moving as a Church in the future. Although certainly not universal in Christian teaching (both Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism work somewhat differently, for instance), in general practice the Bible’s ethical teachings are understood as simply commanded by God and therefore are to be unquestionably followed. The theological principle that “through faith Christ frees us from the law” allows Christians not only to get around some of God’s more difficult commandments (very few Christians are walking around without eyes and teeth) but also leads most Christians to utterly abandon those difficult texts as sources of revelation. Furthermore, when those in power have decided that certain commandments should be followed in a way that oppresses others, the results have been devastating: a historical refusal to ordain women and condonation slavery, as well as the ongoing condemnation of sexual minorities.

As a Christian I still believe that the Bible’s ethical teachings have been inspired by a sovereign, creator God. At the same time, I firmly hold to the notion that Biblical ethics should still play out as common sense principals that can be tested in everyday life and contribute to human liberation, a practice that from my perspective would be considered subjecting Biblical morality to the love of Christ. While my own faith community, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has improved a great deal in recent years on its understanding of Biblical ethics, perhaps we could consider something that is still controversial as an example: sexual relations before marriage. Interpreted through the love of Christ, throughout most of human history the Bible’s prohibition of sex before marriage could be taken at face value. In a time without modern contraceptives and without two now identified life stages (adolescence and young adulthood), this teaching works partially as a women’s rights issue, as having a society filled young, single mothers without familial support does not make common sense, nor contribute to human liberation. In our contemporary world, insisting two young adults in a loving, long-term monogamous relationship who can barely find jobs should either spend their meager resources on two rent checks (in an attempt to avoid sexual temptation) or rush into a marriage they simply cannot afford, does not make common sense nor contribute to human liberation. Rather, interpreted through the love of Christ in this specific case, Biblical ethics regarding human sexuality would rather indicate focusing on the sacredness of human sexuality and its power to distract one from relationship with God and to harm other people if abused, whether or not the couple decided to live together.

The second half of our conversation focused almost exclusively on the role scriptures have played in religious syncretism. Dennis explained how whenever Buddhism has entered a new culture throughout its long history, a new school of Buddhism and a corresponding new set of canonical texts has eventually formed. As primary examples, the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools formed as the Buddhism expanded into new parts of Asia and incorporated some aspects of Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and other local belief systems/ cultural characteristics. Now that Buddhism has to a great extent permeated Western thinking, there is conversation within Buddhism around what might next take shape. Indeed, as Dennis greatly emphasized, never before in the history of the world have things moved so fast and never have folks been exposed to such diverse ideas at once. While many argue Western Buddhism will primarily incorporate aspects of psychotherapy and modern science, Dennis tends to focus on how various aspects of Christianity might be incorporated as well.

In particular, there is a wealth of Christian mystical literature (some accepted by orthodoxy and some deemed “heretical”) that while largely unknown to most Western Christians (and especially Protestants), may provide great insight and revelation. Dennis once again briefly cited the writing of the 20th century Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, but also spoke of an older text I had never heard of before, an anonymous work from the fourteenth century called the Cloud of Unknowing. I brought up how I was in the midst of studying the Philokalia, a collection of writings by Eastern Church mystics still read by many Orthodox believers. Dennis also discussed his interest in early Gnostic Christian writings largely excluded from the canonical Bible. In his view, many of these texts were likely deemed too empowering and thus dangerous by the Christian fathers, because if one could achieve salvation on their own, why would you still need the Church? We concluded our conversation by discussing how both the Buddha and Jesus intended for us to achieve salvation, and that the mystic tradition of both faiths may provide a strong foundation for future interfaith exploration.

My conversation with Dennis will greatly influence how I engage both Christian and non-Christian scriptures as I minister in our increasingly pluralistic, globalized age. In learning about his use and interpretation of the moral teachings in Buddhist scriptures, I was able to reconsider and better characterize my own use and interpretation of Biblical ethics. Our discussion around mysticism was also extremely helpful. Coming from my own Lutheran theological tradition, I will always be grounded in both the canonical Bible texts and the central tenets of Lutheran theology, especially “justification by faith” and “theology of the cross.” It in fact proceeds from our theology of the cross that we must humbly recognize all human creations, including religious systems, as imperfect. Such humility calls us to engage both the scriptures and believers of other faiths, both as part of our calling to love our neighbor but also in order to learn more about ourselves. Such humility also calls us to explore those Christian texts historically deemed “heretical,” for much the same reasons. Finally, such humility calls us (especially as Protestants) to carefully rediscover the rich mystical traditions of our faith that the Reformation sought largely to suppress. While I cannot help but hold to the core tenets of my Lutheran tradition, I can also recognize that other faiths and their respective scriptures may help answer questions my tradition simply does not focus upon. Such exploration and conversation can lead to both a more spiritually rich life and closer relationship between myself, the folks in my Christian congregations, and our neighbors of many faiths.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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