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Thursday, August 30, 2007

All religions are one.

One of the arguments of the emerging church is that structurally we have to recognize the fragmentation of society after globalization, which means that ideologically we cannot believe otherwise than by adopting the postmodernism's (a word which is always to be distinguished from "postmodernity's") conception of truth as constructed and pluralistic. A common source for this argument is the plurality of religious beliefs which seem so diverse and incompatible that they could have no common ground at all.

I was reading about Amida Buddhism, which is still one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Japan. We don't know much about it in the West because the experts who provide the curriculum for our comparative religions courses find it too similar to Protestantism to be of any interest without seeing that it is precisely its great similarity to Western Protestantism that makes it so interesting.

A summary of my research: Amidism (also known as Jodo Shin or "Pure Land" Buddhism) may find its roots in the third and fourth century after Christ in the area of northwestern India. Amidism is oart of the larger tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and embraces Mahayana distinctives as opposed to the more philosophical Theravada school of Buddhism, which include the belief that Sidhartha was only one of many enlightened ones and that all of them participate in a universal Buddha Nature which is absolutely prior to all of them.

According to Amidism, the Buddha Amida (Amida Butsu) is one of such. The story about him is that he made a vow not to enter into enlightenment until he had accrued enough merit through ascetic discipline to obtain enlightenment not only for himself but for others. According to the story, Amida did obtain enlightenment under such a vow and so the observant who is not able to aspire to enlightment on his own ability may still obtain it just by conscientiously reaffirming in faith ten times "Namu Amida Butsu" -- "Glory to Amida Buddha!". By doing so the observant receives the excess merit accrued by Amida and is able to enter enlightenment based on that.

The basic insight is that the rigorous path to enlightenment is only possible for the few. According to most peoples' own self-assessments, they do not have what it takes to achieve the denial of the ego that is necessary for it. If that is all there is they have no reasonable hope except to rely on the merit of another. Further, Amida is cast in a personal way (supposedly borrowed from some Chinese Taoist sects) and enlightenment is depicted as a "pure land", greatest conceivable land where the water is always clean and the fruit is always fresh and abundant, etc. The idea is that with the use of such imagery, the concept of enlightenment is easier to grasp and the poor, having set aside the insecurity of ever acheiving Nirvana, may make whatever efforts they may toward it rather than despair. Many of the Mahayana buddhas are "bodhifications" of regional deities. It is thought that Amida is the buddha counterpart to Ahura Mazda from Zoroastrianism, having come from that region of the world. In other words, the roots of Amidism are thought to be from the apocalyptic religious traditions peculiar to the Middle East.

Several things strike the evangelical reader when hearing the story of Amida Butsu. First, the tendency of the religion to raise to Augustinian degrees about the individuals ability to deny self. The number of the poor tends to expand to include all people, no matter who much some may protest there self-sufficiency. Second, the need for grace in order to be delivered from this condition. Third that this grace is the result of another's sacrifice and the transfer of there accomplished observance to the believer's credit. Fourth, that the this can only be accomplished be faith -- the nambutsu formula cannot be recited to effective, it must be prayed. Fifth, the provider of this merit is one who is a man but also the universal Buddha. Sixth, that the basis for the transfer of this merit is a vow (a covenant) made by the one in question in behalf of others. Seventh, that unlike Buddhism in general, the basis of this story is not reason reasoning from its own resources. We need to told that this vow was made by the testimony of tradition. (In other words, Amidism is an apocalyptic faith.) Eighth, Amidism promises a personal future after death in the figure of a Pure Land to which the enlightened will go -- a land not so corrupted that enlightenment is only possible for the few if possible at all. In other words, Amidism is an eschatological faith. Finally, a characteristic internal foe of Amidism in the household of Mahayana Buddhism is Zen, which promises nothing but what a person may discover for themselves through their own hard work and rejects the "over-mythologizing" of the Pure Land school. (Think of the debate between Augustinianism and Pelagianism in Christianity.)

It seems clear that the logic and rational motivations for the doctrines of Amidism is essentially the same as that for the doctrines of Protestantism. One might suspect that at least the truth conditions for both are different. But one remembers that religious language is often language not about the essence of the religious object (which being infinite is beyond our ability to comprehend much less state in an essential definition) but about the various roles fulfilled by the religious object. "Creator", "Father", "Son", "Redeemer", "Christ", "Lord", "Savior", etc. are all role-realizer words. "The Creator of the world" is "The X such that X creates the world", which is something we can know to true based on revelation and/or reason, but which tells us nothing about what X is.

In the case of the OT saints, they put their faith in the promise of a future Messiah and they did so successfully without knowing that the Messiah would be Jesus. They believed in an X such that X would bring about the Kingdom of God, a function depicted and characterized by the revealed rituals of the OT economy. We now know that the Messiah, that the X in question is Jesus.

If Amida is defined as "The name we give to the X such that X performs the role characterized by fulfilling the pure land vow legend with sufficient proximity", then for all we know "Amida" is just another name for Jesus and the faith of the Amidist is faith in Jesus in a similar sense to the OT saint's faith in Jesus. It remains an empirical question whether a teacher in good standing with the Amidist community would understand his doctrine in this way. Without being able to say for certain whether this is the case, it seems the right attitude about the sufficiency of Amida faith on the part of the Christian must be agnosticism. On the best view, it seems that Amidism is a kind of proto-evangelion. However, the likely response of an Amidist to the Christian Gospel is not to see it as the fulfillment of Amidism but rather as something that the Amidist has no felt need to adopt. This may partially explain why after so many centuries of witness, Christianity has had no significant following in Japan where the Pure Land School has such a great following. As Christian missionaries, we would most fairly expect to win them by saying "We see that you are very religious" and "What you worship in ignorance we want to make plain to you". The most likely response is "We would like to hear more of this matter" rather than scoffing or believing. If we trace this dialectic through to this result we certainly would have accomplished the kerygmatic dimension of mission.

As this example suggests, in the case of Amidism, here we have a religion well within the larger tradition of a great world religion that is significantly similar in content to our chosen faith. Further, in that larger tradition, Amidism has rival sects that answer the fundamental questions differently than Amidism (like Zen about the importance of help from others vs. only helping yourself). Finally, while evangelicals tend to only identify Christianity with Protestantism, Protestantism makes sense only in a broader sphere of distinctive religious discourse that includes alternatives like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Eastern Orthodoxy is more overtly Pelagian than the Augustinian Protestant (and not surprisingly more invested in spiritual exercises and meditation). So it sounds like you have something like this analogy:

Protestantism : Eastern Orthodoxy :: Amidism : Zen

Now it seems that what's true in this case about the relation between these views on the question of grace and responsibility is true actually or potentially of all religions and divisions of religions about all issues. All religions are one in that they wrestle with a certain set of particularly religious aporias even though they make alternative judgments about how to answer them. For any religious debate in any religious tradition, there is actually or potentially (that is, all the concepts are available in the religion to express the question not yet considered) counterpart debates in any other religious tradition. Given that the counterpart relation is one content, this means that every religion has a potential access point for making sense of any other religion, at least doctrinally.

Thus all religions have a unity that makes them potentially accessible to each other and which makes there religious claims evaluable by one another in terms of what is finally considered to be the best answer to each of the aporias all religions face (Some examples of such aporias; sovereignty vs responsibility, law vs grace, infinite vs personal, transcendence vs immanence, faith vs. works, one vs. many, atonement vs holiness, Being vs. Becoming, eternal vs. temporal, etc.) This contradicts the postmodernist account that sees all religious traditions as incommensurable and thus not available to rational discussion. As I hope to have illustrated, this view does not do justice to the phenomenology of religion.

One possible objection to this is the fact that in spite of the similarities between Amida and Protestantism, Amidism is still presupposing a general Buddhist metaphysic of Nothingness and the "no-self" which is clearly incompatible with Christianity. The reply is yes but this does not refute the possibility of internalizing the debate between Infinite Perfect Being vs. Nothingness within both Christianity and Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism already contains theistic elements and in the west we did see at least one theologian, Thomas Altizer, defend what he called "Christian Atheism". We would not necessarily accept such innovations but that does not mean we cannot discuss them.