Thursday, July 29

Going Steady With Buddhism

What follows is strictly and exclusively based on my experience and should in no way or to any extent whatsoever be interpreted as normative for others. I am speaking of and for myself here, no one else. Nor should anything I say be interpreted as a critique of Christianity, the tradition I was raised in and that I followed for about 55 of my 70 years. Whatever critique I have of Christianity is strictly and exclusively a critique of Christianity in relation to my thought, life, and experience, no one else’s. That said …

I am pretty sure I am in the process – it is a process – of becoming a practicing Buddhist. I have been flirting around the edges of Buddhism for some time, studying Buddhist texts, reading books by, e.g., Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, et al. And all this was years before I married into an almost exclusively Buddhist, over-the-top-welcoming in-law family. Several years ago, I took meditation classes and began to practice, in an on-again, off-again, mostly off-again, sort of way, meditation, in particular vipassana meditation, i.e., “mindfulness” meditation, a discipline explicitly intended for lay people to instill an awareness of the Present Moment, i.e., the only moment we are in, the only moment we can be in. (The old cliché “Wherever you go, there you are” is not just a cliché. It is profoundly true.) I think one crucial moment that influenced my decision, the single drop of water that caused the glass to run over, was a series of dharma talks at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, i.e., talks about Buddhist teaching (dharma), by an excellent sensei (teacher), Rodney Smith, on the “Ten Ox-Herding Paintings”. I will not rehearse the story of the impact these talks had on me. If you are interested, you can read the details here. I left those talks in a kind of state of dazed shell-shock – in a good and healthy sense:  Rodney had talked about my experience with Christianity. I think it began to dawn on me even then that I needed a way out of what had become an exhausting, unhealthy, and self-defeating squirrel cage of futility in trying to “please God” and “pursue my vocation” as understood and taught by my experience with Christianity. I realized that, like the farmer in the paintings, I had been exhausting myself for 55 years chasing my own Ox. I needed to stop.

What brought matters to a head, both for my wife and me, was two things:  (1) our experience in Boston at Harvard, Oxford, and later, in Seattle, at Seattle University, where I pursued an MDiv; and (2) the whole sordid and sorry spectacle about child abuse / pedophilia by priests in the Boston Archdiocese – we were living in Boston at the time – and the accompanying complicity of the Church’s most senior episcopal leadership, as revealed by the Boston Globe in its monumentally revelatory “Spotlight” reports, in conspiring to turn the Catholic Church into a child-porn syndicate. I will also not rehearse that story here, either, other than to refer you to my “Skeptic’s Collection” column on the subject.

In the wake of all that, I was gradually, a millimeter at a time, forced to the conclusion that the reason I could never get the “hang-uv” Christianity – and, really, any ethical monotheism – was because of the Problem of Evil. I do not know how other Christians (and Jews and Muslims) reconcile their belief in their God with the existence of Evil in the world. That is their business, not mine. I am not the keeper of their conscience. But I am the keeper of mine. They have to live with themselves – which, to all appearances, most of them do quite successfully. But I could not do the same because of how massively large the Problem of Evil looms in my conscience and consciousness. I simply cannot “get there from here”.

Ox-Herding Painting No. 6

I have come to believe that the entire Problem of Evil, and the reason I cannot get around it, originates in a theology that, while recognizing the existence of Evil in the world, notwithstanding teaches that the entire Universe is presided over by a God Who is possessed of (a) infinite Knowledge and (b) infinite Power. Once posit that kind of God as the Deity of your religion and – it seems to me and, again, speaking only for myself – you create for yourself an insoluble problem of reconciling those two propositions with each other:  (1) the existence of incorrigible Evil in the world juxtaposed with (2) the infinite Power and infinite Knowledge of God. The final and fatal complication, moreover, is that in addition to (1) and (2) all ethical monotheisms posit a third principle:  (3) the infinite Goodness, in fact, the omni-benevolence, of God. There would be no problem, no inconsistency, it seems to me if we could stop with juxtaposing the existence of Evil with (1) and (2):  simply conceive of God as a Great Cosmic Hitler or Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic or Donald Trump. In that case, the conclusion would be:  but of course there is Evil in the world, because the Cosmos is presided over by a God of infinite Knowledge, infinite Power – but also infinite Evil.

The Divine Spanner in the works is the infinite Goodness of God.

As the little doggerel in Archibald MacLeish’s play, JB, about the problem of Evil expresses it “If God is God He is not good; / if God is good, He is not God. / Take the even, take the odd … ‘

The Divine Spanner entails a couple of fatal consequences:

o In order to be a Christian, I see no way to avoid “gas-lighting” yourself, i.e., denying the evidence of your own reason and senses.  In my own personal case, this has always taken the form of impelling me to believe that, in spite of all the chaos and Evil in the world, Christianity nevertheless asks me to believe that beneath or beyond the chaos there is a Divine Plan or Pattern working that eventuates in the ultimate good of human beings (or, as Buddhists are often fond of saying, “all sentient beings”). I have busted many, many guts over the decades trying to believe this – finally to no avail. I cannot get there from here, any more than I could look at pictures of Donald Trump’s Inauguration crowds and gas-light myself into believing, per Sean Spicer, that they were the largest Inauguration crowds in the history of the American Republic.

o A corollary of the above is St. Paul’s contention in Romans 8:28 that “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” So the devout Christian woman whose abusive husband breaks her jaw and ruptures her spleen is part of the Great Divine Plan or Pattern that will lead to her salvation and sanctification. Another consequence is that I am not free to employ my own ethical judgment because that judgment is always subject to being overruled by God’s sovereignty.

Anyway, I think you get the picture by now. So how does Buddhism hold the promise of reconciling, in my mind, Christian faith with the Problem of Evil?  Simple answer:  it doesn’t. Buddhism, to me, I realize after a decades-long dalliance with it, is analogous to the Starfleet Academy Kobayashi Maru challenge future Admiral James T. Kirk defeated:  he changed the terms of the problem.  That – again, to me – is what Buddhism does with the Problem of Evil:  it changes the terms of the problem. It does so in an astonishingly simple way:  it eliminates the necessity of belief in an omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent God.  (You are still free, as a Buddhist, to believe in such, but such a belief is not necessary.) Without that, there can be no Problem of Evil – for reasons of simple logic, if nothing else.

Once eliminate belief in an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God and the above two correlative problems also go away. To wit ...

o As I have learned it and been taught it, the dharma -- the corpus of Buddhist teaching -- starts with the Four Noble Truths. The first such Truth is starkly simple: "Life is suffering". This has the immediate effect of abolishing the gas-lighting that -- again, in my experience -- is and always has been necessary (for me) to be a Christian. If I come to a devout, observant, practicing Christian and lament "The world is chaos. Some people live, some people die, some are rich, some are poor, some are loved, some are unloved, etc., etc. ... ", the Christian response -- one more time: in my personal experience -- is some form of the following: "Yes, yes, I know that the world and life look chaotic, It looks like 'no one is minding the store'. But you have to have faith that the chaos is only apparent, that underneath or behind or beyond the chaos, God has a great, sovereign Divine Plan or Pattern at work that will eventuate in the salvation and health of human beings. You cannot see this Pattern. But you have to have faith that it is there". In other words, I have to ignore the plain evidence of my senses, my experience, and my knowledge, and -- like believing in the size of Trump's Inauguration crowds -- refuse to believe what I directly see. That is the distilled essence of gas-lighting.

But if I make that same complaint about chaos to a practicing Buddhist, lay person or sensei (teacher), the response will be simply: "Exactly! Life is chaotic. Why? Because life is suffering." Period. No further dispute. Least of all is there any gas-lighting about great but invisible Plans and Patterns. But matters are by no means beyond all hope. I will also be told that I can learn disciplines and behaviors that will enable me to navigate the chaos, e.g., the Eight-Fold Path. But such strategies and practices and disciplines always begin with taking my personal, direct experience seriously.

o Correlatively, the belief that "Life is suffering" frees me of the strictures of Romans 8:28 and enables me to believe that, yes, sometimes really bad things happen to people, and that there is, in fact, no great, bodacious Divine Plan or Pattern to mitigate or in any way to redeem this circumstance. Bad stuff happens. Period. End of sentence. And what is bad really is bad, not good in disguise. Period. End of sentence. Again, I am free to believe the evidence of my own eyes. I do not have to believe that a woman who is raped will, in any sense, be "better" for the experience -- contra some Republican lawmakers. Being raped is bad. Period. The First Noble Truth -- "Life is suffering" -- means that I am free to use my own autonomous moral judgment about what is good and what is evil.

In closing, I want to emphasize again that I am speaking only and exclusively for myself. Many people relate to the Christian God intimately and amicably. I never could get along with Gods, nor have I ever at any time gotten along. As a practicing, observant Christian, I always lived with my God in a state of incorrigible emotional tension, much like (so I imagine) a woman in a relationship with an emotionally unstable spouse: I was never sure when God, perhaps in a bad mood, would inflict on me the spiritual equivalent of a ruptured spleen. (If you read the story of the turbulent relationship between the Hebrew God and the Israelites in the Christian Old Testament, there is an eerie similarity between their relationship and the relationship of husband and wife in an abusive marriage: episodes of insensate violence followed by episodes of tearful remorse on God's part. Phyllis Trible writes about this in her haunting book Texts of Terror.) Though it has taken me 55 -plus years to give myself permission to admit it, I would have been healthier if I had never been exposed to any kind of monotheistic religious tradition. In retrospect, such a life has, for me, been like I imagine life in North Korea: perpetually under surveillance and perpetually being evaluated.

I do not claim Buddhism is perfect. But, for me, it promises, for all the above reasons, to be a liberation.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Buddha statues … … Public domain
Dharmacakra … Shazz, Esteban barahona … CC by SA 3.0Buddhist monk … … Public domain
Ox-herding painting no. 6 … Tensho Shubun (1414–1463), Museum of Shokoku-ji Temple … Public domain
Gaslight … David Ohmer … CC BY 2.0

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