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On Syncretism

August 5, 2009

Shambhala Sun has an interesting post about an Episcopalian minister whose bid to become the bishop of Northern Michigan was rejected due to concerns about his Buddhist background, particularly the “ideas he espoused about salvation, including the existence of multiple paths to God.” I, for one, am not surprised. From the fourth century onward, Christians have professed belief in the “one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” The God of the Nicene Creed is not the abstract God of the philosophers: he is said to have a very specific nature and relationship to mankind. Furthermore, given the Creed’s insistence that he is the “one God” and not merely “a god,” it is difficult to see how such a God could be accessed by multiple paths.

Or perhaps Christianity and Buddhism are describing a similar phenomenon in different words. If so, we needn’t worry too much about the Nicene Creed, as it should not be taken as a literal account of God. Along these lines, we might say that God is — to borrow an image from Thich Nhat Hahn — the water, and we are the waves. Perhaps this is so, yet such a view does not so much reconcile two accounts of God as it does describe one (Christianity) in terms of the other (Buddhism). Conversely, the water and waves image could be incorporated into orthodox Christian theology, with the Buddhist “water” corresponding to the holy spirit. Either way, the assertion that there are “multiple paths to God” conveniently leaves the question as to who or what God is unanswered.

So am I siding with the standing committees and bishops who rejected the minister? Not necessarily. It seems to me that Christianity would benefit immensely by ceasing to worry about doctrine. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as Christians have a deeply ingrained tendency to debate such matters as Christ’s divinity and the nature of communion. Still, I think the classical pagans had it right in treating religion as a matter of storytelling and ritual rather than of creed. Divine revelation, by its very nature, admits no evidence either for or against itself. To accept the claim that Jesus Christ “came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man” requires an act of faith. But if faith is a gift of God, there is nothing I can do in order to convince myself of the Nicene Creed; nor does science or reason disprove the core tenets Christianity. From the standpoint of metaphysical truth, divine revelation is simply a moot point.

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