It was surprising to see the mainstream media pick up on the issue of York Minster offering Zen Buddhist meditation classes. You can read a piece by The Guardian which generally seems baffled that anyone would consider it a problem. You can read an incredulous piece by Christian Concern who are thoroughly outraged by it. I wanted to try and pick apart the relevant issues and at least attempt to explain some of the thinking.
The surprise of the secular press that conservative Christians might be miffed is hardly surprising. When it comes to issues of faith and belief, everybody is aware of the potential for fights and divisions. As such, to pick a fight about something seemingly so harmless as closing your eyes and thinking about nothing – especially when it appears to be bringing two faith groups together – seems unnecessarily perverse in the eyes of many. Nobody in their right mind actively wants to see acrimony and tension stoked between different groups. Why on earth would someone oppose what appears to be doing an awful lot to avoid the very unpleasantness we all agree we would rather not see?
The conservative Christian may approach the issue from a different angle. Of course, they – just like everyone else – do not want animosity or division to be stoked. They certainly don’t want to be at the centre of any strife, who does?! Though the conservative Christian may disagree with other religious beliefs – including differing denominational practices within churches – they are conscious of the importance of freedom of religion (as much for others as for themselves). Therefore, they have no problem with other religious groups carrying out their religious practices within their own places of worship. Similarly, they have no problem inviting people of other faiths into Christian places of worship. They, typically, have no desire to make non-Christians feel unwelcome or ostracised within the church. The issue lies in the boundaries of endorsement. When, and where, do permission and tolerance become endorsement and affirmation?
To make an analogy: imagine a Labour politician being friends with a Tory (I understand it has been known to happen). Imagine that the friendship blossoms despite deep disagreement with one another politically. Where do the boundaries of that friendship lie? How far can one go as a friend without tacitly endorsing opposing political views? At what point does it becomes a matter of hypocrisy to propagate your own views whilst helping a rival advance entirely contrary ones? Certainly not at the level of merely being friends. It is surely possible to be friends with people with whom we deeply disagree. Probably not at the level of wishing each other the best. We can surely wish well for those with whom we differ. Maybe at the point you provide them with space from which to campaign? Almost certainly at the point you (for whatever reason) decide to go out delivering their literature. Without question when you end up forcefully defending their policies, contrary to your own, with voters. The point is that in any given situation there are always boundaries which, once crossed, move us from a position of friendly, respectful disagreement into the realm of tacit, or even overt, approval and endorsement. We may well differ as to where those boundaries lie but they are undoubtedly there, for all of us.
And here is the heart of the issue. Are York Minster merely providing space for a Zen Buddhist group as an expression of respect? Or, are they tacitly – or even overtly – endorsing or affirming the teachings of Zen Buddhism? The Guardian suggest the former whilst Christian Concern the latter.
It is hard to see any desire on the part of York Minster to keep the teachings of the church distinct. The dean of York stated the sessions ‘offer an opportunity for Christians and others to come together and learn about and explore Zen meditation practices and the congruence of Zen with the Christian faith’. Had the sentence stopped partway through, though some may want to have a discussion about the wisdom of the matter, an argument might be made for a learning exercise being just that, and this being entirely legitimate. It is more difficult, however, to see how the closing phrase ‘and the congruence of Zen with the Christian faith’ might be construed as anything other than the very syncretism with which the God of scripture seems to take such issue (Judges, anyone?). And if syncretism is the order of the day, this is not only tacit but overt endorsement. It involves the adoption and inclusion of those beliefs and practices into your existing system.
Even the canon chancellor, who initiated the sessions, made clear he personally practices Zen meditation, going on to call himself ‘religiously bilingual’. He argued that Zen Buddhism posed no fundamental problem because ‘it doesn’t claim to be a system of doctrine or belief’. Aside from clearly exhibiting syncretistic tendencies, it is a particularly facile view of how doctrine functions and an equally jejune understanding of how philosophy and belief intersects with practice. The very idea that any religiously, or philosophically, inspired practice is devoid of its religious or philosophical origins is a vapid position. That aside, it doesn’t take much to see that the claim to be no system of doctrine or belief is itself a philosophically derived position. That is before we contend with the painfully obvious fact the claim isn’t even true. Zen meditation is an outworking of the philosophical, doctrinal belief that one can reach enlightenment within oneself.
However you cut it, such teaching is antithetical to the Bible. The Bible is clear about the wisdom of looking within and the nature of doing so (cf. Prov 28:26; Jer 17:9; Luk 18:19; Rom 3:23; 1 Jn 1:8, 10). It is equally clear about where enlightenment is to be found (cf. 2 Sam 22:29; Job 29:2f; Psa 18:28; Dan 2:22; Ezr 9:8; Jn 8:12; 12:46; 2 Cor 4:6). If anything within scripture is clear it is that looking within is futile; only looking to Christ leads to enlightenment.
At the risk of upsetting the chancellor of York Minster, he claims ‘There is a recognised phenomenon now … called “dual religious belonging” where it is recognised that people have a foot in more than one religious camp’. Only this ‘recognised phenomenon’ is nothing new, it is as old as the Bible itself. It is old-fashioned syncretism. It is the very sin which roused God’s anger throughout the OT. And it is only the syncretist – one determined to commandeer the practices of other beliefs and religions and append them to their own – who could look at the pages of scripture and consider Zen Buddhism congruent with Christianity.
So all can rightly want to just get along. Nobody wants to stoke the fires of suspicion, animosity and hatred. But one side want to do it at all costs. To jettison beliefs and doctrines, to live in a world of overtly contradictory positions, is the price they are willing to pay in order to just get on. The other side also want to get along, but they don’t want to do so in a way that flattens out any distinctive belief they may hold. They certainly don’t want to do so at the expense of their own conscience. As Martin Luther famously averred ‘my conscience is captive to the Word of God… acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound’. Would that others claiming to stand in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation might be similarly held captive to God’s Word rather than merely looking inward and choosing to discard what it says.
I think there is a genuine difficulty for the evangelical Christian with Buddhist teachings. They do indeed contradict biblical teaching at many points, some quite fundamental. There are also many areas of commonality, particularly in ethics, e.g. compassion, patience, forbearance, generosity, kindness, and the importance of wisdom and reflection in the spiritual life.
The basic practices of meditation in Buddhism (mindfulness and loving kindness) were inherited by it from the non-Buddhist culture surrounding it, and aren’t, in my own personal view, closely linked to particular doctrinal beliefs that contradict Christianity. In fact they develop qualities that fit well with the Christian path.
I think it should be possible to find an accommodation here, based on the areas of agreement.
Thanks for your comment.
I should clarify:of course there are some shared values. However, one can find some shared values with almost anything if one chose to look hard enough. There is a clear distinction between two groups both sharing a belief in peace (which is fine) and one group adopting the practices of the other as an act of affirmation despite deep differences.
The issue for the evangelical is not whether there are shared values upon which we can come together. It is (a) from where are those values drawn and (b) when a coming together becomes endorsement of an opposing view. Take the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation as an example. It is hard to maintain these doctrinal positions whilst simultaneously endorsing the idea that enlightenment can be found within and Nirvana or salvation (which are not the same thing at all but the syncretist must flatten any distinction in a bid to cohere fundamentally different teachings together) is a matter of reaching oneness.
I don’t believe that following the meditation practices of Buddhism is an affirmation of Buddhist teaching. The basic meditation practices make no assumptions about the nature and origin of the world, though more advanced ones do. They are simply ways to train the mind in good directions. Enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition cannot come about simply by meditating. I don’t believe there is any threat to Christian values here.
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