Developing the Dialogue–ETS Paper 2010

I’m continuing my little subtheme of papers addressing Buddhism in some way.  This piece is actually the most direct discussion, but unfortunately it was a fairly hastily written conference paper.  My second conference of the year, and my first time attending that conference, Evangelical Theological Society Conference 2010 was overshadowed for me by the trip I was taking to meet Sarah, my own rapidly growing conviction that the Catholic Church was where the Truth resided, and my almost desperate exhaustion–having transitioned jobs to my second evangelical faculty post, only to face moving on immediately.  A topic I had hoped to give slow, deep reflection to therefore became a quick summary, with no likelihood of an immediate resumption of the conversation.

Still, I think I was getting at something real, here, and I hope to have an opportunity to follow up on it.  Here, then, my rough-and-ready speaking text of my 2010 ETS submission:

The Time of God’s Long Suffering:
Reading the New Testament in Response to a Buddhist Problem

Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
Atlanta, Georgia
November 17, 2010

Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation[.]
1 Peter 3:8-15

Most of you will, as I do, tend to immediately read this passage with attention to two key contexts: the context of individual reassurance or exhortation, and the context of discussions among various eschatological systems. Obviously, the passage should be read in these ways. Let me ask you, though, to set those aside for a moment, and look more directly at the language of time itself, here. The “thousand years” and “one day” paradox suggests that God’s interactions with time are subject to compression and dilation relative to His concerns. The time frame of calendars and clocks, though part of the order of Creation, is not absolute. Instead, the Epistle’s readers are oriented to a time frame in which “the Lord is not slow […] but patient”; in which God’s reluctance to end the age before “all should reach repentance” will give way very unexpectedly, “like a thief,” and violently, even to the point of a distillation of the material cosmos to its personal, spiritual quintessence.

Perhaps most strikingly, the reader so oriented becomes a participant in this timing, “waiting for and hastening” the end while simultaneously able to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” From this brief reading, permit me to extract a framework of four assertions for later use:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe a framework like this should permit us to address Buddhist thought on its own terms, while still reasoning consistently from the language of Scripture.
Now, before I proceed, let me hasten to offer three disclaimers—yea, I will give four qualifications. First, I know that just “one small step for a man” from what I’ve just said lies a fruitful and ancient discussion of chronos and kairos in rhetoric and history. I would love to hear from some of you who are more deeply involved in that conversation than I am; I am sidestepping that discussion. Second, I am keenly aware that the readings from 1 Peter, Luke, Romans, and 1 Corinthians that I hope to offer, today, will hardly be groundbreaking—indeed, I hope that I will say nothing absolutely new. I hope only to emphasize certain elements of these texts that speak to a certain juncture in a certain discussion.

Third, when I turn to face Buddhism, I am aware of a double criticism that can be made against my main sources, which are Japanese Buddhists from the Kyoto School. Scholarly Buddhism is not folk Buddhism; and Japan’s uptake of Buddhism is idiosyncratic within East Asian context, even before we turn to Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent. I have done what I may within my background reading and selection of sources to deal with these known issues by using sources from both main traditions of Japanese Buddhism, privileging their direct interactions with Pali source texts, and staying as near as I may to “mainstream” collections of the teachings of the Buddha.

Beyond that, and fourth, I say to you that I very humbly offer these comments as an attempt to mark some clear connections within a Christian conversation that answers to a Buddhist conversation. When I say that these passages provide us with answers, I definitely have in mind neither the insistence of fact against the question, nor the reduction of the question to the scaffolding used to renovate it, but the apologia of a faithful response in another’s conversation, and a hope that can bear questioning.

While my personal hopes definitely have to do with the interaction of committed Christians with East Asian culture, I have also developed a keen interest in the convergence of Continental philosophy with Buddhism. There has been a steadily growing (though very uneven) interaction of Western philosophy with Buddhism throughout the past two centuries, correlating very precisely to the growth of a post-Christian consensus in the societies once comprised as Christendom. Nietzsche’s Antichrist at one point addresses the relationship of Buddhism to Christianity under the very late Nietzsche’s abrasive criticism of both religions. Significantly, Nietzsche compares the two in terms of the theology of sin: “Buddhism is the only really positive religion to be found in history, even in its epistemology (which is strict phenomenalism)—it no longer speaks of the ‘struggle with sin’ but fully recognising the true nature of reality it speaks of the ‘struggle with pain’” (17). Nietzsche does not have a particularly close understanding of Buddhism, but he does identify the difference in emphasis between Western philosophy and Buddhism reasonably well.

Equally imprecise, and apparently contradicting Nietzsche, J. Estlin Carpenter’s 1923 Buddhism and Christianity differentiates the Christian response to suffering from Buddhism as follows:

The revelation of the Rule of God instead of ending “the age that now is” has indefinitely prolonged it. And it has not altered its external conditions. The world is as full of the pains of sickness, the decrepitude of age and the sorrows of death, as it was when the son of Suddhodana first learned of them on his pleasure-drives. […] And we have not the insight claimed by the Buddha to relate each smart to some incident of wrong in a distant life. Christianity can never explain suffering. In the mingled web of pain and joy which is woven into every lot, it can lay no hand upon the ill and say “This is thy desert.” Under the Rule of God it has another word, “This is thy service.” (62)

Of course, from Carpenter’s later and fairly liberal standpoint, Nietzsche’s distinction between “struggle with sin” and “struggle with pain” has fallen into disuse; “sin” is simply one of the “external conditions” in the “mingled web.” What is interesting, however, is that Carpenter appears to believe that the Buddhist idea of karma definitely calls for one-to-one consequences for acts, while Christianity does not do so. Carpenter’s view seems to accord well with Christ’s rebukes concerning the man born blind or the sacrilegious murder of some Galileans, but also seems to ignore the principle of sowing and reaping, as well as the trial by works of Romans 2.

Both Nietzsche and Carpenter have tapped something, though, which is of crucial importance when trying to bring the Buddhist understanding of suffering into contact with the New Testament. As Carpenter’s assertion “Christianity can never explain suffering” suggests, Buddhism regards suffering as the trace, and also the essential determination, of being sentient. Suffering both marks and is the fact which consciousness explains. Christianity, however, has typically taken suffering as indicative, not of the nature of being, but of a defect within a goodness either remembered or anticipated. Christianity typically tries to account for the defect so as to distinguish the ill and its causes from the creature and its goodness (hence the perennial “problem of evil” is accompanied by the “problem of pain”). Buddhism, on the other hand, typically tries to account for sentient being’s apparently intrinsic capacity for suffering.

For Takeuchi Yoshinori, both religious and philosophical efforts have as their focus a “conversion,” the core of which is a shift from thinking of suffering as an individual experience to thinking of the individual consciousness a form of suffering. Takeuchi proposes in The Heart of Buddhism that “conversion is said to begin with self-purification, with a catharsis of soul” for “mystical traditions of all times and places.” He further differentiates “mere morality or ethics” from “purification that follows on conversion” in such traditions, for the latter “stands on a higher plane.” Takeuchi suggests that “such purification is permeated throughout by the problem of the impermanence of all things, by the problem of life and death,” but this problem is not merely a matter of finite lifespan. For this reason, Takeuchi criticizes “neo-Kantianism—along with the liberal theology based on it” for being “fettered to the immanentism of human reason and hence [. . .] only impeding our view of that abyss of death and sin and nihility that opens up under our very feet as the fate of being human” (72-3). Like the Curse of Genesis 3, the problem as Takeuchi takes it up is bound up with all of the joy and suffering of mortal life. For Takeuchi, this understanding of human moribundity tightly links traditions as varied as yogic Hinduism, various Buddhisms, medieval Christian mysticism, and post-Christian existentialisms. The crucial insight, he suggests, is a universalizing of the confrontation with suffering: “Without the memento mori, without an accompanying awareness and appropriation of death in the depths of one’s own being, those reflections become nothing more than pathological abnormalities.” Reflection on suffering which leads one to relate to such suffering as a defining feature of sentient being, rather than merely an unpleasant experience for such a being, is the essence of the “conversion” Takeuchi has in view.

In Takeuchi’s writing, the “turn” involved in this “conversion” hinges on the subject’s becoming conscious of what Buddhists term “dependent origination.” Takeuchi suggests that this conversion is often described in the “fundamental experience of artists and poets,” who in their self-conscious acts of representation may “experience an immediate embodiment of the dynamism of world and body, other, and life prior to the distinction of subject and object” (74). The writer whose characters “take over” the work, the carpenter who sees what the wood “wants to be,” the painter who realizes that he and his painting are illuminated by the sun no differently than the things he paints, are all having experiences that hint at the principle of “dependent origination.” Takeuchi describes “dependent origination” as follows:

the subject that, seen from the world, is part of the world, constructs its own being-in-the-world co-dependently and correlatively with the world, and yet does so as its own activity. [. . .] We may liken it to dreaming: when we dream, we live in correlatedness with the world of the dream and, through the phenomenal identity of dreamer and dream, keep the dream alive; but as soon as we become aware of this correlatedness, we have already awoken. (80-1)

Takeuchi extends this similitude of “dreaming” when discussing the consequences of a developed consciousness of “dependent origination”: “at the moment one awakens, the various sufferings that troubled the world of sleep are awakened to in the realization, ‘it was only a dream; I was sleeping’” (91). He proposes that the conditions for the construction of world and self “are only grasped in their primary sense when their essential determination is sought in terms of their extinction, when they are seen as past essences, as things that were.” The subject having awakened to the understanding that something which suffers—the subject, the self, personally and globally, as self or as deity—has originated through moribund desire, the practice of disassociation from such desire should cause, not a turn within that self, but a return to the world precisely as a universal suffering within which one need not be perturbed.

For Keiji Nishitani, this form of “conversion” is a key distinction between Buddhist and Christian responses to the nihility of secular life (its ultimate negation of its own ground for significance). Nishitani contrasts the Western responses of post-Christian figures such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, in which “nihilism is dealt with on the horizon of the so-called ‘history of being,’” with the Eastern response, in which a nihilistic crisis has not occurred (168). He argues that “the East has achieved a conversion from the standpoint of nihility to the standpoint of sunyata [or Emptiness, No-Thingness].” Rather than picture suffering as a disease or disorder within the individual, Nishitani’s Buddhism describes “the ‘sea of samsaric suffering,’ likening the world, with all its six ways and its unending turnover from one form of existence to another, to an unfathomable sea and identifying the essential Form of beings made to roll with its restless motion as suffering” (169). Thus, although “the nihilism of modern Europe […] could not help but awaken to itself as something pervaded by a Great Suffering,” Nishitani praises the Buddhist response which “goes a step beyond the existential self-awareness of suffering to speak of a ‘universal suffering’ where ‘All is suffering,’ and to recognize in suffering a basic principle.” In fact, Nishitani measures the post-Christian Western response to suffering in the person against Buddhist principles and suggests that “It might not be wide of the mark to suggest that Buddhism’s explanation of suffering as one of its Four Noble Truths—the ‘Truth about Suffering’—be regarded as an advance beyond the existential awareness of suffering to an existential interpretation […] of being-in-the-world.”

In other words, the Buddhism represented by Nishitani and Takeuchi affirms that suffering seen or experienced by the individual provides a hint toward a higher understanding, a re-interpretation of the cosmos from the standpoint of suffering. If suffering, whether by undesireable inflictions or unsatisfied desires, affects all things—and if death bounds every individual life within suffering—then suffering must be a more fundamental principle of sentient being than the pain and disease that bring it into consciousness. From this standpoint, the enlightenment for which the Buddha received that name is the belief, psychologically necessary and consistent with our humanity, that suffering is the reality of which particular individual thoughts, desires, concerns, lives, deaths, and discontents are the shadows. To perceive the world from the standpoint of all suffering would be, ironically, to cease to suffer any particular pains as any particular person. As a common Zen-inspired tea scroll says, “Nothing happens”; or rather, as the implied commentary says, “Things happen, but they happen to no one.”

One key problem for the Christian, of course, is that this brilliant psychological strategy seems to amount to an evacuation of Creation—if all sentient beings were to achieve this enlightenment, then the world as we know it would cease to be full of people. If we remember the four tentative principles we extracted from the language of time and suffering in 1 Peter 2, though, I believe we can speak to the necessity which inspires the Buddhist to seek the life of a Buddha precisely by affirming the nature of our suffering as such. Let me review those assertions, briefly:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe these can be proposed to the Buddhist as an alternative response to the understanding of the universality of suffering. We may, for starters, accept the standpoint of all suffering as a profound expression of the reality of a fallen world, in which every sentient being suffers and is both actively (in actual sin) and complicitly (in original sin) a contributor to the suffering, even noting the very close correspondence of key Buddhist texts to the truth expressed in James 1:2-21. Verses 14-15 are especially on point: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (The language in James 4 about the origin of social conflict in spiritual conflict is also very helpful, here.)

We will not, however, propose a practice aimed at assuming the standpoint of all suffering, a “conversion” in which all things personal are taken to be shadows obliterated by one’s turning to see them. We know that, in the process of repentance and mortification by which we are conformed to Christ, we will come to exclaim with Paul that “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives within me” (Gal 2:20). Yet we will find ourselves compelled to confess that God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons. Suffering, especially unjust suffering, not only stresses our sense of God’s justice and goodness; it also reinforces our understanding that, in giving good gifts, God is never concerned merely with our separate, inner, immanent happinesses. In Luke 18:1-8, in fact, Christ’s teaching that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” deals not only with the participation of believers waiting for vindication in the divine economy of justice, but specifically affirms God’s own impatience on the subject: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” This impatience to vindicate Himself and His people over against the violence of human sinfulness, and to bring an end to suffering, is also the proper theme of the language in Romans 9 concerning the “vessels of wrath, doomed to destruction,” which God “endured with much patience.” We are, as Peter says in his Epistle, to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Vindication—itself the urgently personal defense of those who cry out for deliverance from suffering and injustice—waits because of the similarly urgent and personal desire of a God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Because God is concerned with relationships among divine and human persons, the “turn” for the Christian believer is not from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering impersonally, but from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering with Christ for others. This is the lesson of 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, especially “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. […] Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” The historic Christian affirmation of the communion of the saints reflects exactly this economy of suffering, proclamation, and intercession, which is also enacted in “the communion of the body of Christ.” As many other texts in Scripture teach, particularly those most concerned with communion (both as a sacrament and as koinonea in its manifold meanings in the Body Life), to become a believer in Christ and a follower of Christ is not to become merely a member of a voluntary organization for the promotion of common goals; it is to become part of a divinely managed historical order whose interrelations—like they myriad interrelations of your body and mine—are real in complex ways which defy our efforts to reduce them to manageable lists of principles, visions, or sociological constructs.
There is urgency to this understanding, however. For just as the Buddhist who realizes that laughter makes no sense when the whole world is burning must proceed to enlightenment or live in madness and misery, we must not leave our friend in possession of our understanding without awakening him to the whole timetable; the insistency of an divine and human interpersonal norm on an eventual righting and reckoning of things, and the choice that requires of those who realize it. In Romans 2:1-8, Paul reminds us of the right ordering of time once more, most pointedly when he asks, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

As I have said, these are not the final thoughts, nor the answers which make the questions stop, in this conversation. I do believe, though, that by focussing on the language concerning our participation with God in God’s long suffering as constitutive of the time during which we live, we will make ourselves available to Buddhist thinkers as interlocutors who—unlike the god-talking atheists who primarily represent Western and even “Christian” thought to East Asian intellectual historians—believe the language of the New Testament itself speaks directly to the concerns Buddhist teaching seeks to respond to. And that, at least, must be an enriching of our discourse with the very words of truth.