american christianity…functional buddhism?

From many streams of my reading and study and reflection lately, I keep coming back to something that runs throughout Scripture: Christ comforts us in sorrow, loss, trouble, trial, etc. But he is not interested in making us comfortable. The meaning of life is not the Anglo American suburban dream (I’m writing this as an Anglo American living in the suburbs).

Are we functional Buddhists? In Christianity, the problem that must be dealt with is sin; in Buddhism, the problem is suffering. I’ll be careful here not to venture further into the Buddhist religion than this lest I speak wrongly of its tenants. But isn’t much of what we do with ourselves, even in the name of the gospel, designed to eradicate suffering from our lives and to make our lives not more meaningful, but more comfortable?

One wonders, then, where people like the civil rights freedom riders could come from today. Where might suffering for the sake of the gospel arise? I’m not talking about a masochistic interest in martyrdom here. Rather, I’m talking about persons whose lives are so radically formed and lived according to gospel, kingdom values that, when they are purposefully placed in a milieu that is opposed to that gospel and kingdom–here’s when you should read the freedom riders link if you haven’t already–that suffering for the sake of that gospel and kingdom is practically inevitable.

This is, after all, what Jesus did. His life, proclamation in word and action, and teaching about the kingdom, was so radically oriented around gospel and kingdom values that, lived in a milieu that embraced values opposed to the gospel and the kingdom, the predictable, probable end was characterized by violence and suffering and death. But the suffering and death of Jesus is a redemptive one.

If the problem is suffering, we don’t have a terribly ascetical approach, but we have a seemingly effective one–avoidance. If the problem, however, is sin–that is, evil within the world, including within ourselves–then suffering can be meaningful.

There is a critical distinction to note. In describing suffering as potentially meaningful, we do not profess that all suffering everywhere is redemptive in and of itself. What we are saying is that Jesus’ vocation called him to a life and a life’s work that eschewed comfort and embraced a path that would put him on a collision course with the injustice of suffering. But that suffering would end up being for the sake of others’ reconciliation with God and restoration in God–setting everything right, that is.

This is the part of our United Methodist praying around Holy Communion that has me thinking about this once again: “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless these gifts of bread and cup. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” (my emphasis)

What does it mean to pray this, to receive the sacrament, if not to enter into the very life of Christ in the present world? Would that not press us out of our “functional Buddhism” that solves the problem of suffering by attaining comfortableness and into the gospel of the kingdom that lays “comfortable” aside for the sake of relieving the unjust suffering of others, the power of sin that keeps them in its grip? Yes, we need forgiveness badly. Yes, we need repentance, and we need a savior to deal with our sin. But if our baptism means anything, does it not mean we are cleansed of our sin in order to be fit for this sort of gospel and kingdom?

Best I can tell, New Testament seems to think so.

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6 thoughts on “american christianity…functional buddhism?

  1. I’m working my way through Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, and his account of the shifts in theology and philosophy in the 17th & 18th centuries include not only the rise of deism, but the increased place of providence that preceded (and assisted) that rise. With the centrality of providence, God’s job was seen as providing us with a perfect environment in which to live and do what we want to do. The Lisbon earthquake – and many other events – started to convince people that God wasn’t doing a very good job at that providence business. Some took this in the direction of atheism (suffering? must be no god), some in the direction of a life force (not strong enough or interested in suffering).

    I think your diagnosis of a proto or semi Buddhism is on to something here. If you read Taylor, one of the things that accompanied these shifts, was the modern predilection to method and discipline. We Americans are still quite modern in this way, and we’re engaged in seeking methods to overcome our personal suffering, whether it be Buddhist methodologies, immersion in materialist distractions (if we’re rich enough), or 6 Ways Jesus makes us happy and successful.

  2. A quick follow-up. Clearly suffering IS a problem. That’s why atonement/salvation theories that ONLY address my personal guilt for my personal sin are inadequate. But as we have come to see suffering as the ONLY problem worth mentioning, some branches of American Christianity have eliminated anything but salvation from suffering in their approach to atonement/salvation.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Richard.

    On comment 2, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m trying to get at the best way to articulate the distinction here.

    The odd thing, it seems to me, is that many of the churches with an inadequate, personal guilt only theology of atonement are the same ones that are cultivating a Christian culture in which persons of Christian profession are what I’m trying to get at with the “functional Buddhist” question.

  4. This week we went to Cornerstone and we heard this hippie band called the Psalters several times. They travel all over the world and kind of live like nomads. They were in Iraq and sat with the Iraqi Christians while the US bombed them. They have some amazing testimonies.
    Anyway, in several of their songs they say, ‘God is with the suffering. And that’s where you’ll find me.’
    As Christians, we are commanded to find the suffering and BE with them.

    Goat

  5. Excellent stuff, Goat. Good to hear from you. I agree. I think that’s where we get when we bring the Genesis 22 text into conversation with the Eucharist via the Jesus link/parallel in the story. In the text itself, you have God being provider, Abraham’s, Isaac’s, ours. Read canonically, you have Jesus being the provision. Then read canonically, missionally, and in conversation with the sacramental tradition, we have to ask ourselves when God is providing us as the sacrifice to bump his justice up against the sin, evil, cruelty, and anti-kingdom/gospel powers of the world. But this is previewing a future post…

    The Psalters… seriously, Abby played with them in college for a little while!

  6. i like this post a lot guy. i’ve never thought about this connection to buddhism and the alleviation of suffering. i think it is right on target. the Gospel is precisely the liberating power that transforms suffering into Love because it frees us from ourselves enabling us to give ourselves away.

    in my way of thinking the real issue for us isn’t so much “sin” as it is “slavery.” it is our slavery to self that leads us to all sorts of sin and self protective strategies to maximize comfort and prevent suffering. our identity is shaped as a slave by sin and our identity is formed as a son or daughter in baptism. there’s too much here to say for a comment. thanks.

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