Saturday, April 26, 2014

    "Marcus Borg has written a widely helpful book about the need for Christians to retrieve the correct understanding of Jesus, which, he claims, would be a much more appealing picture of Jesus.  He titled the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  I think the same can be said about the need many Christians feel to retrieve their mystical traditions: they need to become mystics again for the first time.  Karl Rahner, one of the most respected Catholic theologians of the past century, recognized this need in a statement that has been repeated broadly: 'In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything.'

    Buddha has enabled me not only to understand and feel but to be kicked in the stomach by the truth of Rahner's words.  Yes, it is a question of survival!  Unless I retrieve my Christian mystical tradition, I'm not going to be able to hang in there with my imperfect, often frustrating church.  Buddha has called me 'to be a mystic again.'  But--and this will be hard to explain--the 'again' is also a 'first time.'  With what I've learned from Buddhism, I have been able to retrieve parts of the rich content of Christian mysticism as it is present both in the 'professional mystics' of church history (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich) and also in the New Testament writings of John's Gospel and Paul's epistles.  But because of my passing over to Buddhism, it's been more than only a retrieval.  It has been for me not just a matter of pulling out of my Christian closet the mystical mantles that were covered with dust but already there.  I've also been able to add to the mystical wardrobe of Christianity.  What I've added has 'fit' what was already there, but it is also something really new.  So, I've returned to Christianity's mystical closet again but also for the first time.  Let me try to explain.

    When Buddha refused to talk about God in order to make way for the experience of Enlightenment, he was making the same point, but even more forcefully, that Rahner was getting at in his insistence that Christians must be mystics: 'God' must be an experience before 'God' can be a word.  Unless God is an experience, whatever words we might use for the Divine will be without content, like road signs pointing nowhere, like lightbulbs without electricity.  Buddha would warn Christians, and I believe Rahner would second the warning: if you want to use words for God, make sure that these words are preceded by, or at least coming out of, an experience that is your own.  And it will be the kind of experience that, in some way, will touch you deeply, perhaps stop you in your tracks, fill you with wonder and gratitude, and it will be an experience for which you realize there are no adequate words.  Rahner listed all kinds of ways in which such experiences can take place in everyday life--falling in love, hoping when there is no hope, being overwhelmed by nature, deep moments of prayer or meditation.  Often, or usually, such experiences happen before there is any talk of explicit consciousness of 'God.'  They happen, and some such word as 'God' or 'Mystery' or 'Presence'--or 'Silence'--seems appropriate.

    To put this more in our contemporary context, Buddha has reminded me and all of us Christians that any kind of religious life or church membership must be based on one's own personal experience.  It is not enough to say 'amen' to a creed, or obey carefully a law, or attend regularly a liturgy.  The required personal experience may be mediated through a community or church, but it has to be one's own.  Without such a personal, mystical happening, one cannot authentically and honestly call oneself religious.

    But with it, one is free both to affirm and find meaning in the beliefs and practices of one's church, and at the same time one is free to criticize one's religion, which means to stand above, to confront, but at the same time to have patience with one's religion.  Both Buddha and Jesus, because of their own extraordinary mystical experiences, were able to criticize bravely their own religions of Hinduism and Judaism respectively (Jesus, to the point of getting into serious trouble) but also to affirm and preserve what they found to be true and good in those religions.  Mystics are both loyal followers and uncomfortable critics--which, it seems to me, is exactly what Christian churches need today."

--Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian


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