|Posted by [email protected] on December 2, 2013 at 2:05 AM||comments (6)|
Many religious scholars have noted that the life experiences and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha were remarkably aligned- so much so as to suggest they may have been twin incarnations of the same God, operating in different cultural settings. Conventional Christians and Buddhists would recoil at this proposition but a more detached observer might regard it as felicitous, indeed sublime. Given that Buddha distilled the essence of Hinduism as Jesus did of Judaism, their convergence could potentially signify the underlying unity of most of the great religious traditions. What a victory that would befor human tolerance and solidarity, especially since the basic teachings of both amounted to a kind of spiritual humanism.
There is a widely held conviction that the decline of theWest is due to a moral vacuity or moral relativism that has depleted core values like parental and social responsibility, compassion and the sanctity of human life. In recent decades Christianity has been largely eclipsed by secular humanism and this is often cited as the root cause for the erosion of these values. Christians argue that if there is no God, there is no purpose to our existence and this ultimate nihilism results in a moral void.
However the secular humanists can just as easily retort that religion does not provide any purpose either. Even if God did exist and created us, His purpose (and thus ours) remains inscrutable, especially since so much evil and suffering pervades his creation. Religion can talk about loving God and doing his will. But that does not explain why we are here. Humanism has long claimed its strongest suit is the prioritization of humanity and the problems of this world that tend to be eclipsed by fixations on the afterlife in the religious mindset. However the good intentions of both humanists and Christians are likely to falter without an overarching purpose
Both Buddha and Jesus implied that the purpose of our existence was to develop compassion for human suffering. For Buddha, this involved largely a meditative, spiritual process. Jesus however took a more dualist approach. For him, reducing suffering required a robust, active commitment to helping the poor and oppressed and creating a more just world. Both men confronted hostile and corrupt religious elites but unlike Buddha, Jesus attacked them head on and ended up nailed to a cross.
The overwhelming bulk of Christ’s teachings and actions were concerned with the relief of human suffering. His mission was directed at showing us how to develop and express authentic compassion through our care for others (especially children), selfless humility, reflexive forgiveness and an unfailing commitment to social justice. This was his vision of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our world and it brought him into acute conflict with the power elites who were then, as now, the chief source of human suffering. By following Christ’s example, we will improve this world and ultimately achieve eternal life. But while Jesus may have established that as our life purpose, it lacks credibility unless we can resolve that perennial enigma: Why would God create a world with so much suffering in the first place?
Christ may have provided the answer in declaring that compassionate relief of suffering brought “great glory” to God (John 11:4&15:8). Perhaps the purpose of suffering is to fully actualize God’s goodness, not for His own self aggrandizement but because that was an inherent necessity. Like white without black, goodness may require evil- temporarily at least- as a countervailing point of reference. Such ultimate realities can be regarded as beyond the ambit of God’somnipotence. Thus God was impelled to create life. But finite life is mortal and as such inevitably underpinned by self-preservation- which in turn gives rise to self-gratification or ‘dukkha’, as Buddha called it in pinpointing the source of human suffering. Accordingly, both God’s impulse to create the universe and the rise of evil within it, may be regarded as inexorable.
Christ partially confirms this in his parable of the farmer and his field in which he purports to “explain mysteries hidden since the dawn of time.” (Matt. 13:24–39). In stating that God and heaven were ‘asleep’ when evil first appeared in his creation, Jesus is effectively saying that this intrusion was not consciously willed or desired by God. Jesus further implies that God was unable to eradicate this evil without splitting the whole fabric of his creation. He suggests the evil must remain in our world until we, as God’s children grow to spiritual maturity. And how do we manage this? By constantly striving to develop a spirituality of compassion that seeks to reduce and eliminate evil to make our world more worthy of its creator.
Such a purpose for human existence may still seem problematic as humanity is clearly far from reaching this spiritual maturity and for most people past and present, the process might not have even begun. For such a protracted goal to be feasible it is necessary to factor in the concept of reincarnation. Buddha certainly did so and there is now strong evidence to suggest that Christ also envisaged reincarnation. Here once again, the two spiritual humanist leaders converge.
The point of major difference between Jesus and the Buddha is usually regarded as the significance each attached to the relevance and even the existence of God. Buddha scarcely mentions God while in the canonical gospels, Jesus had an intimate, personal relationship with God as his (and our)‘Father’. But in the Gnostic gospels Christ’s concept of God is vastly more abstract, a transcendent reality that we must strive to be at one with. In this respect his ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ vision is not dissimilar to Buddha’s Nirvana and the spiritual goal of each was also an intensely humanist one- that our growth towards ‘oneness’ and ultimate redemption lies in our own hands, that we are master of our own destinies.
Even in the canonical gospels this robust humanism can be readily detected in Christ’s teachings. His references to God as ‘Abba’ and appeals to faith, prayer etc should not be taken too literally. The chief purpose of these gospels was to popularize and entrench his teachings by making them intelligible to the broad masses who could not think outside these ‘squares’. But as well as being our ‘Father’, the God of the New Testament is also Sophia our Mother, the ‘Holy Spirit’ of compassion and His ‘son’, the personification of human compassion. Christ’s attitude to prayer and faith is also rather equivocal. Prayer is sometimes deprecated (Matt. 6:31–33) or else commended primarily as a meditative spiritual exercise (Matt 6:5–8). Christ even suggests faith should be based on empirical evidence (John 10:38 & Luke 14: 28–32.). As for his death on the cross serving as a sacrifice to appease a wrathful God, that is a primitive idea that derives from St Paul and gains little or no validation in the gospels.
For further development of this proposition, see A spiritual humanist perspective on Easter by clicking 'Older Entries' below