Question from “Tough Texts Part 2″…

graphic from 09-27-09

I used this graphic in yesterday’s sermon to illustrate the point of view represented by the video clip from Saving Grace: “Jesus is only one of many ways to God; there are many paths to God.” One of you texted this question: “I thought Buddhism did not believe in God.” I’m not terribly familiar with Buddhism (can someone out there help?), but I believe different traditions within Buddhism differ over the extent to which they are theistic. Certainly, many Buddhists are non-theistic.

But my point is the same: Just substitute “Ultimate Reality” for “God.” All these religions, including Buddhism, point toward some ultimate or transcendent reality beyond this empirical world of time, space, and matter, which we can access only through faith. Make sense?

4 thoughts on “Question from “Tough Texts Part 2″…”

  1. I am hesitant to comment about Buddhism since most of what I know comes from one a book I read in college as part of a history class. However, I do think the idea of Buddhism being an atheistic religion is quite interesting and within the context of the Buddha’s life may point to some interesting questions about God.

    The Buddha lived approximately 500 years before Christ and for most of his life he was certainly a Hindu. It could probably be argued that the Buddha always considered himself a Hindu, similar to how Jesus always considered himself Jewish. However, I am not well enough informed to make that claim. What I do know is that the Buddha began asking many serious questions about the human condition and found himself unsatisfied by the traditional answers put forth in the Hindu religion. Not being able to understand the true nature of God, or to the Hindu mind “The Gods,” the Buddha’s response to questions about God/God’s was to not concern yourself with things that do not affect your life on a daily basis.

    Many of us Christians would agree that the Hindu view of spirituality does not provide an accurate understanding of God. However, what understanding could the Buddha have had? 500 years before Christ the only monotheist religion in the world was the Jewish faith and even if the Buddha had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem he would have been unwelcomed in the temple due to his ethnicity.

    Given these points, I wonder if the Buddha’s hesitant’s to comment directly on the nature of God was truly brilliant. Many ancient faiths did the exact opposite by trying to explain God fully through myths. This often led to the writers of the myths gaining power and benefit over those not fortunate enough to have been the creators of the culture’s framing-story. The Indian caste system might have directly shown the Buddha the dark side of such myths and been a huge part of why he refrained to comment on things he did not understand.

    This all leads me to a few questions for the group. What should the spiritual life of someone who was not Jewish and lived before Christ look like? Was it possible for that person to have an understanding of the true God? Does this matter to us today and should it change the way we look at that persons teachings?

    I cannot state in words how glad I am to have Christ and how fortunate we are to be able to access God without having to ask the above questions.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful note, Dave. My understanding of Buddhism agrees with yours: that God’s or the gods’ existence is sort of beside the point. But I’m sure that’s a generalization. The Dalai Lama came on faculty at Emory the semester after I graduated. If only I could have asked him!

      As I said in my sermon, we are not surprised or threatened that there are many common points of agreement between the world’s religions. By all means! We should understand and celebrate what we have in common. We have much to learn from one another, I’m sure. Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and renowned 20th-century Christian thinker, went east to study with Buddhist monks and found it valuable. There is only one truth, and inasmuch as other religions reveal it, I say a hearty, “Amen!” We believe that there is one Spirit, after all, revealing truth.

      What I argued in my sermon (and in my “Questions” Sunday school classes) is that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God: everything we need to know about God and God’s relationship with us is revealed in Jesus. Notice that I don’t say that God is not revealed to some degree elsewhere, but where there are competing truth claims between our faith and others, we side with Christ and the Church he instituted.

      What’s the alternative? To pretend that these differences don’t matter? They certainly do matter to the people who hold their faith’s truth claims dear. In a well-intentioned effort to respect someone else’s path to God (or ultimate reality), we end up disrespecting it by saying that their path and our path are really just the same. That insults practitioners of other religions, many of whom would say that if they wanted to be Christian, they would be, thank you very much. Does that make sense?

      I might say more about different strands of universalism later, but I reject the kind of broad-minded universalism that rejects the uniqueness and, yes, exclusiveness of the revelation of God in Christ. I affirm that Jesus is “the way,” not one of many ways, to the Father. As I said in my sermon, however, the question of Jesus’ being “the way” is separate from the question of hell (and who goes there). I think I’ll say more about that later in this sermon series.

      See all the stuff you have to look forward to?

  2. Brent, I think everything you said in your reply about today’s world is absolutely true. However, can you shed some more light on what the spiritual life of a non-Jew living before Jesus could/should have looked like.

    Over the past few years I have spent most of my study time reading the New Testament. I find myself in easy agreement with just about everything in the New Testament and feel invigorated by what I learn. These past few months I decided to start reading parts of the Old Testament that were previously unexplored to me and: WOW IT IS INSANE!

    I realize our lives are far different than those of ancient people. However, as Christians how do we make any sense of passages from Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy that appear to counter Jesus’ teachings? Does God have love for Old Testament gentiles and if so what kind of spiritual life did he want them to have? Can seeking an answer to these questions help us better understand the Biblical text or should I be asking a different set of questions?

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