Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Dalai Lama on How Religions Relate.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to sit between
the two of you until you stop pulling each
other's robes!" 
I've just finished listening to the Dalai Lama's Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together, read in a suitably understated manner by Richard Gere.  Aside from his autobiography, for me this has so far been his most interesting book.  Of course that is largely because the subject of the book is in my field. 

In this little review, I'll describe the strengths and weaknesses of the Dalai Lama's approach to world religions.  (Without any quotes -- one of the problems with listening to books on tape!)  Then in response, I'll offer twenty suggestions for how Christians should understand and deal with "competing faiths" or "our brother religions."

How Should Religions Relate?

The Dalai Lama assumes the standard typology of models for how religions relate to one another: exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism.  He has practically nothing to say about the second, and almost nothing good to say about the first.  (Which is ironic, since as I will explain below, he reveals himself to be an exclusivist.)  However the brand of "pluralism" he espouses is less narrow than some: he does not run roughshod over genuine differences in religions, and does not want the world's faiths to become One (probably not just because he would lose his job!)  He never mentions John Hick, who posits the "Real" as the ineffable reality behind objects of faith (God, Allah, the Dao, etc).  But he does refer to his "friend" the eminent scholar of religions Huston Smith, and takes a similar approach to "the world's religions" (as Smith's best-known book is called).

The best part of this book is probably the stories and quotations.  The Dalai Lama is not one to give us the dirt on his fellows, or even offer interesting sketches of their personalities, as E. O. Wilson does in his Naturalist.  But his comments on other religious leaders, including obscure traditions he has befriended. like Jainism and Sikhism, are still interesting.  And of course it is always interesting when he talks about his own remarkable life. 

When it comes to other religions, the Dalai Lama seems to follow St. Paul's admonition (to take it out of context) that love "hopes all things, believes all things."  When writing about Christianity, he does not mention the Inquisition, and doesn't say much about the Crusades.  (I consider this fortunate, but not for the reason you might suppose -- people say such foolish things about the Crusades, and I don't want to lose respect for the DL!)  The Dalai Lama "accentuates the positive" in all traditions, like Smith, and treats the sins of those who belong to competing faiths as unfortunate failures to live up to their truest ideals.

Like Hick, and Confucius, the DL has an interpretive key by which to understand the world's faiths.  That key is compassion.  He moves his spotlight from religion to religion with what seems to me genuine charity of spirit, picking out beautiful sayings, customs and teachings in Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, and yes secular democracy.  (He mentions "totalitarian communism" once, without saying anything good about it, however!)   This does not feel cloying, because he recognizes differences, and often singles out particular teachers for admiration on particular points, which seems genuine to me.  He is editing the world's religions, but does not seem to be disassembling. 

Catholic theologian Gavin D'Costa has persuasively argued that there really is no such thing as pluralism.  Everyone has some fundamental beliefs or concepts or maps by which we understand the world, the truth of which necessarily excludes beliefs that do not agree with it.  Even if I say, "All religions are equally true!"  That excludes any religion that claims some are grossly in error.  D'Costa especially takes John Hick to task for what the former scholar describes as "Enlightenment Exclusivism," which he considers more narrow-minded than many other forms.  But in the same book, D'Costa also argues effectively that the Dalai Lama is an exclusivist, too. 

I think this book supports that analysis, both the Dalai Lama's theory, and his concrete examples.  While recognizing differences in ontology, the DL focuses on morality, in effect subjecting all other traditions to his own ultimate moral value of "compassion." 

Does compassion really unite the world's religions?  The New Testament refers some 300 times to "love."  Is love the same thing as Buddhist compassion?  I am not sure that it is, exactly -- especially in schools of Buddhism that deny the reality of the Other, or lack the concept of a bodhisattva.  (Oddly, the DL never directly mentions Theraveda Buddhism.)  But let's say those two concepts are pretty close.  Let's also admit that for Confucius, the idea of Ren (仁), love or humanity, was also vitally important, and that long before St. John, the Chinese philosopher Mo Zi said that since Heaven was love, we, too, should love one another. (In part by helping them build defensive weapons against attacks from enemy states!) 

What about Aztec religion?  What should a Buddhist say about a religion whose most pious annual display involved cutting out the hearts of thousands of enemies on the top of a pyramid, for Heaven and Earth to see?  Or was that a perversion of genuine Aztec faith, which was really at its "heart" all about holding hands and whispering sweet nothings and working for Habitat for Humanity?   What about the shaman in Amazonia who said, "All we shamans know the spirits are happiest when we kill?" 

What about the Nazis?  Hitler said he "loved" the German nation.  Not a religion?  Then what about Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple?

The DL never mentions these guys.  Hick avoids them like the plague, too. 

All right, they weren't "great religions."  (Apparently by "great" we mean "big?")  So was compassion really the heart and soul of Mohammed's ethics?  Well let's be compassionate towards Brian Barrington, if he happens to be reading this, and skip that one, this time. 

Some will say, in response, "What about Joshua?"  Sure, but my point isn't to defend the Bible right now, but to check the Dalai Lama's alleged "pluralism" for signs of exclusivism.  And indeed, he builds his Procrustean Bed, and pads it with compassion.  His dialogue buddies in various-colored robes who affirm the blend of philosophical Tibetan Buddhism and liberalism that he preaches in public forums, paste nice sayings and photo ops from religious dialogue conferences above that bed.

So we're all nice and cozy.  But compassion is not a full description of the world's religious ethical systems.  The Dalai Lama seems to be projecting his kindly views on everyone else, and maybe engaging in wishful thinking. 

As a Christian, of course I think the DL is right in thinking that we should treat one another kindly and look for the good in one another.  At times, he provides a good model of what that should mean.  As a practical program, he's a little vague about what precisely should be done, but most of us can agree that we should "Love our neighbors as ourselves." When details come up (global warming, missions or no missions, how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict), difficulties emerge with them.  The DL thinks missions are unloving: I think they are the soul of compassion, when done right.  (I also notice that this is the second book in which the DL talks about Christian missions in Tibet, without mentioning how Christians were persecuted.)  So there are differences when it comes to applying compassion.  There are other moral values besides compassion, which may compete with it.  And even on the level of theory, let's not just assume everyone does in fact begin with "love your neighbor as yourself" -- for many of us, "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" comes first, and gives number two meaning. 

The Dalai Lama is a man of great experience, and I think noble spirit.  Having read his mother's autobiography, I second his suggestion that he probably that partly from her.  His call to compassion is worthy of great respect.  May God bless him for many good works he has done, of which this book I think represents one -- the attempt to encourage people of all religions to, as Rodney King put it, "Get along."  It may sound jejune, but it is hardly uncalled for. 

But intellectually, I don't think he takes us too much further than that.  Nor could he: speaking on behalf of all the world's "great" faiths, almost any direction he pushed that envelope, and it would likely break. 

So based on my own study, let me suggest a series of twenty guidelines that may help Christians better understand and deal with non-Christian faiths.  These formulations will be concise, if not terse: I have gone into greater detail elsewhere (here, for instance) on most of them.  .

Twenty Guidelines on the World's Religions

(1) Love God, and "love your neighbor as yourself."  God comes first.  By "neighbor," it is highly unlikely that Jesus meant Ganesha or Poseidon or Dialectical Materialism.  He meant the people who worship these shibboleths.  And by love he meant seeking the true good of the beloved. 

(2) Be mule-like, when it comes to telling the truth.  "Speak the truth in love" balances these first two principles. 

(3) There is both good and bad in all traditions: if you want to be honest, you cannot ignore either.   If you do ignore one or the other, you will become an exclusivist or a pluralist as the words are commonly used, and not fully connect to the people you are called to love. 

(4) "Religion" is best understood (for comparative purposes) as what Paul Tillich called an "ultimate concern."  By that definition, everyone has a religion.  Some worship God, others worship money, evolution, their own minds, sex, Kali, or Apollo. 

(5) Be honest (at least in your mind, there is also a time for tact) about religious founders.  Some seem to have been highly admirable people, in the ordinary way of speaking (of course Jesus went deeper, when he said no one is truly good): Confucius, Lao Zi, Epictetus, and Socrates among others.  Some are hard to know, historically, like Siddhartha Buddha himself.  Most of what we are told about him seems shrouded in mystery, coming from much later texts, and while I believe Siddhartha was an historical figure, I am unsure what he was like.  Other religious founders are, frankly, creeps and psychopaths. 

Which, of course, doesn't mean you have to call them that, when dialoguing with their followers.  But also don't lie. 

(6) Religions are defined in one of three ways: (a) by the personality, acts, and teachings of their founders, (b) by their canonical Scriptures or teachings, and (c) by their developed traditions.  Conservatives concentrate on the first or especially the second.  Liberals concentrate on the third.  Then these two groups argue past one another.  So if you are a liberal and want to talk about religion with a conservative, make sure you're both defining it the same way, first -- and vice versa.

(7) Sometimes (a) is greater than (c), in terms of its influence on a given "believer."   Sometimes (c) predominates over (a).  So calling someone a "Muslim" or a "Buddhist" does not by itself tell you what that person believes: to know that, you need to ask questions.  (Most people are happy to answer such questions.) 

(8) As Adam Smith recognized, and the Dalai Lama seems to agree, a free market in faiths is like an economic free market.  Freedom accomplishes two goods: it prevents monopolies that oppress, and it tends to lead to greater flourishing.  For both of these reasons, a free market of faiths -- many churches competing freely for members -- is the optimal situation.  Not only does it allow people to weigh claims and choose for themselves, it also encourages more general piety than an oppressive religious monopoly.  (See the works of Rodney Stark for copious examples.) 

(9) Jesus said he came to "fulfill" (πληρου) the Law and the Prophets.  This means he consummated and deepened the central truths of the Jewish tradition.  It also means God "set Israel up" for Christ's coming.  It follows that it is untrue to say that for Christians, "Christianity is the only true faith."  Christianity recognizes Judaism, in some form at least, as also being true, though not as full a truth as the Gospel.

(10) Jesus also fulfills the deepest truths in other traditions around the world, often in remarkable ways.  (A topic I have written extensively on.)  This does not mean he "fulfills world religions," because truth within a tradition is not the same as the whole religion.   

(11)  God transcends individual cultures.  Awareness of God shows up in traditions on every continent, as St. Paul and Augustine forecast. 

(12) One should also look to traditions around the world for the symbol of the tree, and of sacrifice, sometimes upon that tree.   This often serves as divine preparation for the Gospel, as it did in Greek, Germanic, and Indian cultures, for examples. 

(13) One also sometimes finds prophecies that the greatest sage or son of God would die and then rise again from the dead.  These have also pointed many "pagans" to Christ. 

(14) The Gospel unites the story of humanity.  It also often unites the stories of individual civilizations, as is show in Hebrews, Augustine's City of God, Dream of the Rood, Farquhar's Crown of Hinduism, Richardson's Peace Child, and Yuan Zhiming's China's Confession, among others. 

(15) The Gospel is, however, dialectical in its relation to religious traditions.  Yes, Jesus fulfills.  But he also judges, sifts, and critiques harmful elements.  Then he brings what has superficially died to a fuller life, like a seed in the ground that grows into a fruitful tree. 

(16)  Often, one finds in "pagan" religious traditions, beliefs and customs and legends that point to Jesus in such a clear way, that one suspects God has planted them there for that very purpose.

(17) It is reasonable to argue from those artifacts, to the truth of the Gospel -- as does the Bible, as did the early Christians, and as did many great missionaries. 

(18) The Gospel also brings reform to every tradition, when it is accepted even in part.  The Dalai Lama should read the history of missions in Asia, to appreciate how deeply his own part of the world has been transformed by Christ's influence.  Of course, much more remains to be changed, including in western cultures. 

(19) Christ also synthesizes disparate truths within each culture, and in human traditions generally.  In the metaphor of Clement of Alexandria, the body of truth has been dismembered, with each school grabbing a part, but Jesus brings many truths into one in his resurrected body. 

(20) Missions is therefore justified, is commanded by Jesus himself, and should be an act of compassion.  The proof of that compassion, and the effectiveness of missions, depends on genuinely befriending other traditions from one's heart.  People of Asian cultures in particular, will almost never listen to a missionary who does not first demonstrate that he comes as a friend to their culture as well as to them individually.   

1 comment:

Brian Barrington said...

There isn't much in this that I disagree with. We should both be getting worried :-)