Monday, September 05, 2016

Faith and Works

Something I've been pondering for quite some time...

The form of Christianity that I've been ensconced in over the last 30 years (evangelicalism) places paramount emphasis on believing in and adhering to a set of doctrines (often expressed in creedal statements).  These doctrines include: the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the immaculate conception and virgin birth, the sinless life and the crucifixion/death/resurrection/ascension of Jesus--which resulted in forgiveness of the sin which every human is guilty of, the exclusivity of Jesus as the means of salvation, the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible (both Old and New Testaments), the eventual return of Christ (and spectacular events surrounding it), the final judgment of all humans, an eternal and irrevocable assignment of each person into heaven or hell depending upon whether or not they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior during their life on earth.

These propositions form a narrative.  To openly question or deviate from any of these propositions (and even to question or deviate from more tangential propositions about things like abortion or homosexuality) is to disrupt the narrative and thus invite "correction", ostracism and denunciation from the faithful defenders of the narrative.  This doctrinal narrative creates a creedal framework which provides a fairly easy way to stay within the lines of what is deemed "orthodoxy." 

So, evangelical Christianity--as I've experienced it--is essentially a religion of doctrinal conformity; of faith in the veracity of a narrative and the associated collection of theological propositions.  In fact, the Abrahamic faiths as a whole (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism) center upon doctrines which are constructed into narratives (and narratives which are parsed out into doctrines) and which demand creedal allegiance in order to belong.

And yet when I read the scriptures I see a competing emphasis, which places practice (what we do) above doctrine (what we believe).  Old Testament prophets castigate Israel and Judah for--despite their belief in God--not enacting social justice; for allowing the rich and powerful to oppress the poor and powerless.  The New Testament book of James (one of the oldest New Testament texts) says (in chapter 2) that faith without actions is dead.  As an aside, Protestant reformer Martin Luther had great ambivalence toward the book of James because its message challenged his central belief in "salvation by faith alone" (sola fide).  When Jesus speaks of judgment in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, it is those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the incarcerated who were blessed and called righteous and were granted access to the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life.  Those who did not do these acts of compassion and justice were called accursed and were rejected and sent away "into eternal punishment".

My point in bringing this up is not to rehash the age-old debate about "faith vs. works"--a false dichotomy which goes back at least to Augustine and Pelagius--but to say that in my experience what will cause you to get kicked out of your evangelical church and lose your Christian friends is much more likely to be expressing nonconformist doctrinal views about abortion or same-sex marriage or hell or the virgin birth, rather than not volunteering at the soup kitchen or participating in prison ministry.

In the last few years I've been studying Buddhism as a supplement to my Christian faith.  The word "Buddhism" is problematic given that most "Buddhists" for the last 2,500 years have not called themselves "Buddhist."  "Buddhism" is a term created by Western academics in order to classify and catagorize those who follow the teachings (the Dharma) of the Buddha.  The title "Buddha" means "awakened one" and so the label "Buddhist" literally means "awake-ist"--someone who seeks awakening (which, in a nutshell, equates to experiencing reality as it is in each moment without the illusions caused by our perceptions, projections, internal dialogues and transitory mental states).  What we nowadays call "Buddhism" was typically referred to throughout history simply as practicing the Dharma--the teachings of the Buddha.  Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, tends to use the term "our practice" rather than "Buddhism" in his many books and talks about the Dharma.  Many Buddhists suggest that the Dharma is simply reality "as it is" and thus predates the Buddha's explanation of it.  This is similar in some ways to the apostle Paul's appropriation of an earlier recognized truth: the 6th century B.C. philosopher/mystic Epimenides claim about Zeus that "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

What strikes me about Buddhism--as I've come to understand it--is that it is based upon practice: upon walking the eight-fold path of right (appropriate, skillful) view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.  Sure, there are (lots of) Buddhist doctrines, but what is emphasized is practice.  "Show me your faith without actions," said James, "and I will show you my faith by my actions."  The practices of "awake-ism" (Buddhism) are initially more inward-focused (meditation being the prime example) than outward-focused but they inevitably (or at least, purportedly) lead to a life of compassion towards and solidarity with all living things--and thus bring about external positive change.  It is through the practices (again, particularly meditation) that one realizes the truth of the doctrines (such as impermanence, no-self/ego, contingent arising, suffering caused by craving, etc.).  The Buddha taught his followers that they had to test his teachings for themselves and only accept them if their own experience confirmed them.

And so I come back to the thing I've been pondering for the last few years:  Christianity, as I've experienced it, is a religion primarily about believing.  Buddhism, as I've experienced it, is primarily about practicing.  Faith and works.  I've lost track of the number of sermons I've heard over the years which admonish Christians to do something (such as have more faith, or not sin as much) without ever giving them the practical tools to do it.  Many Buddhists in the West, on the other hand, eschew non-essential historical (culturally derived) doctrines such as rebirth and karmic reward/punishment and choose to emphasize the techniques (such as mindfulness and metta) which result in practical transformation.  This is where I find that the two faiths can coexist and enliven each other (as the eminent Catholic theologian Paul F. Knitter stated it, "Without Buddha I could not be a Christian."): Christianity tells me who God is, who Christ is and who I am in Christ--while the practice of the Dharma enables me to become more and more awake to the reality of this life, this world, this universe, in which I live and move and have my being.


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