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Monday, January 11, 2010  

Christianity, Buddhism, and the Illusion of Religious Choice

In a way I'm pleased that Brit Hume decided that a good use of his and his viewer's time was to make a bizarre and untoward claim that Tiger Woods could become a shining example if he left that whole Buddhism silliness behind and embraced the forgiveness of sins promised in the Christian faith. It has given people a chance to reflect on what kind of religious talk is healthy in a pluralistic democracy and, more importantly, a chance for Buddhists--the real kind, not the Bible-study caricatures one imagines Brit Hume has had described to him--explain their faith.

Of the globe-spanning religions, I have always found Buddhism the hardest to set over against Christianity. A fruitful exchange of views can be had pretty easily, I've found, with Jews and Muslims, since we all share some common premises, themes, and images: Creation, God, good, evil, sin, revelation, etc. With Buddhism there is no common understanding of the human problem on which to debate the relative merits of the offered solutions, as far as I can tell. There are some alluring echoes, to be sure, but it is just very, very hard to put a Creator and an intentional universe into the dock against the idea that the world is an illusion, or the revelation of the Christ event up against the insights of the Buddha, or resurrection and eternal life against enlightenment and escape from the cycle of birth and death. I've still never had a good conversation about religion with a Buddhist--a real one, not just some poser trying to impress girls at an AmeriCorps training.

So when Brit Hume says that Buddhism doesn't offer the forgiveness of sins, he's right in a strict sense. But that's like saying Christianity is crippled by a shortage of avatars of Vishnu. It's not like Buddhists are going around saying, "you know, this is a fine religion, but it's sure lacking in blood atonement for my many transgressions of Mosaic law." That just isn't the problem Buddhism addresses itself too. By the same token, Buddhism has found rocky soil in cultures dominated by Christianity, since Christianity (like the Judaism from which it springs) affirms the world as good and hallows worldly attachments that accord with our created purpose.

What is really baffling to me in these controversies is the assumption by most every party that their own religious affiliation is the result of some unconstrained choice they made among competing options. Especially when you're talking about Christianity and Buddhism, you're talking about such radically different worldviews that it is very hard to truly understand the other, much less evaluate its claims from a neutral standpoint (again, this goes for the real varieties of Buddhism, not the version pulsed for the consumption of pot-smoking Westerners). Brit Hume went from being pretty much non-religious to being a Christian. Practically speaking, those are the alternatives available to most of us born in this country to Christian parents. And I say this as someone who put a good deal of effort into exploring Eastern religions; ultimately, I was likeliest to either embrace the religion embedded in my culture or live my life without the disciplines and consolations of any faith (DIY religious eclecticism is not for Ben Dueholm). I am 99% certain that the same is true for Brit Hume.

There are converts, of course, and conversion shouldn't be downplayed. To generalize, I sense that Americans who want a transcendent religious orientation for their lives but find the beliefs of Christianity excessive or implausible are drawn to Buddhism. Those who find American Christianity to be, on the other hand, too worldly and undisciplined are drawn to Islam. There's a lesson there, too, but it's one for Christians to learn.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 3:51 AM
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