This week, we at RRO have the honor of presenting a personal reflection from David O’Neal, an American Orthodox Christian who is active within Buddhist circles and is an expert in both. David O’Neal is senior editor at Shambhala Publications, Inc. and a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He lives in Boston and blogs at http://davensati54.blogspot.com/.
Barriers Become Gates
Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue
I recently read Father John Garvey’s book Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking about Other Religions,1 which is, among other things, an admirable effort toward encouraging Orthodox Christians to gain insight into the religious traditions that inevitably surround us these days and toward discovering the proper way to regard them. Father John recognizes our understanding of these other faiths to be limited by our inability to enter into them completely, yet, with an understanding of that limitation, that it is possible to move from from regarding, say, my Muslim or Buddhist neighbor as utterly “other” toward finding elements of connection and mutual understanding with him. Though I don’t find myself of one mind with Father John on every point, I’m at least of similar mind with him, which is a rare enough occurrence when it comes to this topic, and I find much to admire in his book. Reading it inspired me to articulate some of my own thoughts about interfaith dialogue, why it tends to be so unsatisfying, and how I think it could be otherwise.
There are a couple reasons why this dialogue has traditionally been of interest to me personally. The first of which is that I came to the Orthodox Christian faith out of a mostly (see below) nonreligious background. It may well have been the lack of religion in my early upbringing that led me as a young man to read extensively on the subject. This reading program wasn’t a particularly equal-opportunity exploration, as I didn’t get very far into the traditions that weren’t in some way attractive to me or that didn’t seem to have much relevance to people outside their own communities. I ended up focusing my reading primarily on Buddhism and some forms of Christianity, guided by instinct and by the books that were available to me in the public library of the small town where I grew up. My early years as an autodidact in religious studies inclined me, when I entered the Orthodox Church in 1979 at age 24, to come into it with a mind at least somewhat more open toward other faiths than the minds of a lot of the converts these days, some of whom identify themselves as being in flight from what they see as religious relativism, among other evils. The second reason is that in my thirties, after nearly fifteen years in the Church, I began practicing meditation in the Zen tradition, and, unlike so many people who move from Christianity or Judaism into Buddhism, I didn’t embrace that practice in rejection of my Christian faith.2 This dual practice gave me a sort of inside view of both traditions that didn’t allow me to identify myself exclusively with either. I was certainly an Orthodox Christian on the level of the articulated beliefs that expressed the ultimate reality, but I was a Zennist on the level of practice aimed toward that reality–though as soon as I write those words it becomes apparent to me that a line can’t be drawn strictly between the two. In any case, I recognized that I’d entered into two different traditions to a certain extent, which provided a different perspective than just reading and thinking did.
An inner dialogue arose from this experience that led to a greater interest in Christian-Buddhist dialogue specifically. I was generally disappointed in what I saw of it, as it was more often done dishonestly than not, with Christians most often the guilty parties. The problem seemed to me to lie in the twin temptations that arise when we come up against the place where our irreconcilable differences with those of other faiths are identified. One temptation is simply to retreat from the dialogue altogether; the other is to find false ways to make the irreconcilable differences go away, either ignoring them, or making something up to smooth them out, equating our experiences with each other’s too easily. I saw the second temptation manifested mostly in the Christian-Zen meditation retreats I sometimes attended led by Catholic priests who seemed to feel a need to justify why they did zazen.
Since there’s a tendency to accuse someone like me, who’s practiced cross-traditionally, as just having succumbed to the latter temptation I’ve identified above, it may be useful for me to give some further personal history to defend myself against the willful ignorance charge:
It was an early experience I had as a child, to which I naturally assigned the word God, that originally sparked my interest in religion. This led to a brief and educational stint with the Baptists through the influence of a pious grandmother (my only connection to organized religion in a family otherwise little touched by it), but by my teens I’d mostly given up on what churches there were to be found around me, even as I pursued my reading interest. I remained fascinated by reports of the experience of ultimate reality and of the systems that claimed to mediate it, though some accounts of it felt truer to me than others. But my geographical isolation (the California Central Valley contained mostly Catholics and Evangelicals) and my unsatisfying experience with my grandmother’s church disinclined me to join any of them.
The encounter with Christ that happened to me in the context of the Orthodox Church overcame my resistance to organized religion quite powerfully (I’m aware of and reject the popular meme that our church doesn’t belong in the category of religion, which I’ve written about elsewhere). This encounter revealed salvation to be an unending process, an eternal movement expressed by the word theosis. This salvation was revealed in the person of Christ, in whom the transcendent, ineffable reality was revealed to be profoundly intimate with us and whose self-emptying death confirmed the truth he embodied to be indestructible. This was all said to have happened in time, around two millennia ago, but the encounter was expressed and experienced now, through the words and images that the Church used to proclaim it. It seemed to me that the inherent limitations of those words and images served to reveal all the more eloquently the inexpressible reality that transcended them. This experience was so powerful and unmistakable that I was compelled to “join up” on the basis of it.
But my entry into the Orthodox Church didn’t mean that everything that came with it, in terms of doctrine, faith, or practice, was instantly understood by me. I don’t mean that I came in with a chip on my shoulder—on the contrary, I was a pretty docile convert, ready to understand what was put before me, but willing to admit I didn’t understand it all yet. I’d be a liar if I said that back then the idea of Christ having two natures or two wills was meaningful to me or that I truly understood that to be an important articulation of truth versus some other, false way of talking about God.
Over the past thirty-five years, I’ve come to understand and accept a great deal more than I did the day I was chrismated, including some things that puzzled me at the first encounter, but there remain elements of our faith as they’ve been presented to me that I haven’t bought yet and may never. Among these is the notion of Christ’s death as atonement, an idea usually traced back to the Book of Hebrews. That idea and much of what follows from it logically still don’t ring true to me. Envisoning Christ’s self-sacrifice as a payoff seems to belie the truth of divine kenosis, which I take to be the key truth about God and creation. That’s one example of the disconnect. There have been others. I suspect any Orthodox Christian honest with himself finds similar sticking points or would if he thought about it much, though there are of course plenty of us who aren’t honest with ourselves or who don’t think about it much.
The truth of the things I don’t yet understand may someday dawn on me, but until that happens, my faith isn’t threatened by what I haven’t yet comprehended. One thing I was never confused about was the indestructibility of this experience of Christ. That it is ultimately impossible to articulate perfectly does nothing to challenge this indestructibility, for which the resurrection stands as the ultimate sign. Challenges to it are about as threatening as a mosquito attacking the Matterhorn. For this reason I find it impossible to regard other faiths as challenges to mine or dialogue with them as a threat.
On his way to suggesting an Orthodox way of thinking about other religions, Father John identifies several different approaches to dialogue that he attributes to other Christian confessions (though I find most of them, particularly the more conservative ones, to be common among the Orthodox). Among these I find the one that refuses dialogue entirely, which he calls Total Replacement, to be the most unattractive, since I don’t see how the basis for that stance can be anything but fear–fear that our truth might be threatened by the dialogue or that the supposedly weak and impressionable in the faith might be led astray. As I’ve asserted above, there is no threat. Fear has nothing to do with faith, and that the faith that needs to be protected from challenge isn’t really faith at all. The refusal to dialogue on the basis of fear feels especially misguided these days, when we live in a multifaith environment unlike any in the history of the world. The Hindu sits at the next desk; the Sikh lives down the block; the Neo-Pagan’s kids go to school with ours. In order to avoid recognizing the elements of honesty and compassion in them that obviously arise from their faith, I must blind myself. If I refuse to blind myself, I find I’m faced with the necessity of dialogue.
Among the approaches Father John identifies, I resonate most with the one he calls Acceptance—which I take to be the stance that allows for a dialogue that enables us to identify and accept our irreconcilable differences. This approach or something like it may be common among the Orthodox who aren’t completely bought into Replacement model. Interfaith dialogue according to this honest model seems a worthy thing to me–if it can come with an attitude of openness rather than defense, with a willingness to be challenged and to have my own ideas about God shaken down as necessary.
But a problem arises if when, after we’ve identified the boundaries of our irreconcilable differences, we assume that the process is over. Because identifying the boundary past which we have nothing to say is, I’ve come to believe, only the beginning of the process of which dialogue is the first step. The second step I find myself compelled to take is this: to take the irreconcilable differences home with me and live with them consciously, like a koan, not expecting resolution, but not letting them go, keeping them before me as I continue my rule of prayer, as I stand at the Liturgy, as I interact in daily life with the people with whom I’ve come up against the boundaries of dialogue. My experience of Christ compels me to take on this practice, because that experience has revealed to me that I can’t leave anyone behind on the Godward journey. Even the hermit in his cave understands this: salvation that doesn’t aim to include all of creation isn’t salvation at all. Whether my neighbor is Jewish, Jain, or atheist for that matter, it’s for his sake that I take up this active practice of living with our irreconcilable differences.
I’ve discovered that, if I’m willing to do that, the boundaries themselves are sometimes revealed to be a gift. Other faiths challenge me and serve to expose my own ideas about God, and to reveal which of them are only that, ideas. I can have nothing but gratitude for that shakedown. If I stay with the contradictions, I discover that some faiths present no challenge at all (such as Mormonism with its low, science-fiction view of God), but that I’m also sometimes confronted with profound wisdom that I can’t deny and from which I undeniably have something to learn.
The notion of the bodhisattva from Mahayana Buddhism is a good example of the sort of thing I mean. A bodhisattva is, simply put, someone who refuses to save himself until he helps all other beings find salvation. There are mythic, historical, and modern manifestations of the bodhisattva ideal around, and it’s hard encounter any of them without being blown away, as they say, whether my encounter is simply with the enlightening symbolism of the concept or with the lives of those who’ve taken on this practice of putting others before themselves in that most radical way. The education in compassion the bodhisattva presents me with causes be to look to the profound truth of Christ’s sacrificial death and to see that, not only do some of my non-Christian friends seem not to have missed something about that truth, but that they understand it and bear witness to it better than I do. I discover a profound connection, and to say otherwise—to force the God-like kenosis I see expressed among them to be something other than it is in order to protect my idea of Christ from threat—is to tell a lie. It’s a challenge to the uniqueness of the Christ event, to be sure, but as I’ve said, fearing or ignoring a challenge misses the point. So I resolve to live with this challenge, not retreating from it, not making something up to smooth it over, being willing to see what happens–and being willing for the issue to remain unresolved.
The practice of living with the boundaries between us like that softens our hearts and opens our minds. It doesn’t make the differences go away, but it does surprise us, more often that we might think, with points of reconciliation that weren’t obvious from the original dialogue. Denying the existence of the boundary and clinging to it as something more solid than it really is are two sides of the same counterfeit coin. If we can take a middle way, accepting its existence while not assuming that it’s more solid than it is, then, at least occasionally, we find real ways to reach across the boundaries.
In his very beautiful closing paragraphs, Father John presents as a theologoumenon the idea that anyone of whatever religion who manifests compassion, wisdom, charity, devotion, and so forth will be saved, because, as he says, “in all these movements of the soul and heart there are seeds of the Word.”3 He goes on to assure us, unsurprisingly, that “that Word, we must as Christians insist, is Jesus Christ, who alone in the salvation of human beings.” I find myself in agreement with him in every way until he uses the word insist (not too bad a disagreement in the context of a book-length work…). When I examine the history of my own journey as a Christian, it becomes difficult to insist on much at all, for it’s been a journey characterized so far by iconoclasm: an ongoing process of having my ideas about God exposed and smashed, leaving me usually astonished by what remains. Each idol that falls reveals the notion of progress on this path to be laughable. I expect this process to go on forever. The experience disinclines me to insist on anything. Even when I make a statement that I do believe to be true—like if I say that Christ is the salvation of all creation–I’m confronted with how much I’ve come to learn about what that statement means in the past four decades, and how little I understood about it when I first embraced it so many years ago. It’s a truth that transcends the language that expresses it, which presents a further problem in bearing witness to it. In the face of all this, insistence makes no sense to me. What does make sense is to bear witness to the experience of Christ the best I can, as I live consciously with the boundaries between me and my separated brothers. The non-knowing that comes from this practice feels somehow appropriate to the journey of theosis. It’s a not-knowing that’s superior to “knowing,” and that ends up, at least from time to time, revealing the barriers between us to be gates.
1. John Garvey. Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking about Other Religions. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006.
2. I won’t digress here to explain how a guy like me, with an aversion to multi-religious practice, ended up doing it, I’ve written about it elsewhere and can fill in the details privately to anyone who wants to hear about it. Though if you believe strongly that such an approach is inherently misguided and I’m misguided in doing it, then you’ll likely not find this essay terribly useful anyway.
3. Page 126.