Where Form and Void Meet: A Buddhist Reflection on a Good Friday Truth
Here we are. And in 2022, today, April 15, is Good Friday. (It’s no coincidence, it’s also the first day of Passover) In Christian tradition, Maundy Thursday launched the events that led to today’s horror, tomorrow’s mystery, then at Easter.
Not just because of the season, but certainly helped by it, I’ve been thinking about Christianity a lot lately. And when I think of something, it appears on my blog or on my Facebook pages. In general, I’m a fan of Jesus. So it’s no surprise that in a social media thread, a friend asked, “So what’s about Christianity that you don’t believe in?”
Certainly a good question. In particular, as with all of this thinking about Christianity, I’ve posted a lot about what I find engaging and useful, and I’ve included a lot of Buddhist Christian dialogue that suggests a lot of commonalities. Or at least that there are ways for a Buddhist to understand Christianity. Including some of the hardest parts.
My life’s journey begins in the warm embrace of Christian tradition. My native faith was fundamentalist Christianity. Basically Baptist. And it is this religion that I put aside at the end of my adolescence to embark on a spiritual quest. I looked relatively superficially at several traditions before diving deep into Zen Buddhism.
I ended up becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. Who has his own gifts and problems. The specifically spiritual parts, at least for me, were a toned down Christianity and wild freedom that explicitly allowed my Zen practices. He even permitted double ordination. Something critical for me.
For a very long time, I would say that I am interested in the religion of Jesus rather than the religion of Jesus. This is a traditional Unitarian trope. And I was sincere. But, during these many years, I discovered that I was also very interested in this religion of Jesus. The thing that would emerge from years of consolidation and co-option by empire and multi-band theologians. The religion where Jesus is subsumed into the Godhead itself, and where the mystical tradition is an ever closer fall into the constant swirling cloud of the trinity. Where heaven and earth come together in a terrible and never fully defined act of “atonement”. You know, today. Good Friday.
Now, in my twilight years, I find that people often refer to me as a “Zen Christian.” I deny it. But, I also rather like it. There is quite a growing community of Zen Christians. They are wild and woolly. Many of them deeply rooted in both traditions, not just tourists. And I actually share a lot with this lot.
Hence the question, what is it about Christianity that I don’t believe? »
I sat with it for a while. And, I realize it’s quite simple. I simply do not believe in the historicity of the Jesus story as it is commonly promulgated. I have a pretty clear sense of the human Jesus. I hold views that are within the bounds of critical analysis and what we know of the history of the time, place, religion that Jesus probably held, including apocalyptic preaching, hiding stories of miracles, the hiding of sayings and parables, the abrupt and horrific end of his ministry and the stories that followed his death.
For me, the Christian story is true. I mean the religion of Jesus. But that’s not history.
So there is this.
I recently read a blog post by an evangelical who insulted another evangelical, a minister, for suggesting that maybe, maybe the birth of the Virgin did not happen as the stories say. The writer said it was a very steep slippery slope that would lead to disbelief. And, ended up asking the minister to defrock. Lots of that kind of thinking in Orthodox circles.
His point is quite simple. Choose just one thread and everything unfolds. It’s definitely fear. And, just to make sure we get it right, hot coals of ridicule are heaped on the head of anyone who introduces a word as a metaphor and applies it to stories of normative Christianity. A lot of people don’t like non-literal Christianity. Nor the people who go to town on this particular horse.
And, there is that.
I don’t find that I have to judge my own faith by the definitions of one group or another. But out of honesty with myself and with others, I have to reckon with normative Christianity. And this heart faith but disbelief in the story pushes the line. Most Orthodox argue that this crosses the line. You believe or you don’t believe.
I am also aware that there have always been counter-narratives. And much of my thinking can be seen in many of these counter-narratives. So there are also these points. Lots of Christianity.
And, there is that.
But, also, there are legitimate questions. If the stories are not historical but point to something “true”, what is the truth they point to? Is there anything convincing in claiming faith and not belief? And, if so, what is this thing.
For me, among the many religious traditions, I discern the most important direction in what is called non-dual. Mostly these are associated with East Asia, Buddhism and Hinduism mostly. However, there are non-dual currents in most, perhaps all traditions. I find this non-dual vision to be a natural thing. It has something to do with our body and our mind. And while it is encouraged within most religions, no religion has it.
Zen is perhaps one of the clearest non-dual traditions and offers some very powerful practices to help us awaken to this reality first. But there are other paths to non-dual, with different accents and different blind spots. Knowing more than one tradition can offer corrections. For me, as a Zen Buddhist, the Christianity that I have come to know and appreciate deeply, provides caveats and invitations that I have found extremely helpful.
Now, when I put all this together for myself, I come to my “physiology of faith.”
But for here. For this day, Good Friday. Pause. A remark of a way in which heaven and earth are joined.