Secular Buddhism: Unitarianism in Buddhist Drag?

In A Secular Age (p. 291), Charles Taylor argues that Unitarianism marks an important point in the development of what he calls the “impersonal order,” that is, seeing humans as existing in a universe that is ordered by factors that are both immanent (only determined by the universe itself, not by some transcendent) and impersonal (not having any of the qualities of personhood). The examples for this are the impersonal laws of physics, and the systems of ethics and laws that are immanent to the human social order and the benefits for “human flourishing” thereof. The contrast is, pretty obviously, the religious vision of what we may call traditional or conservative Christianity, with its transcendent and personal lawgiver who establishes the cosmic order to which we humans are to accord.

Taylor’s summary of “the defining theological beliefs of Unitarianism” read like the template upon which Secular Buddhism was formed. According to Taylor, Unitarian theology attempted

to hold on to the central figure of Jesus, while cutting loose from the main soteriological doctrines of historical Christianity. What is important about Jesus is not that he inaugurates a new relation with and among us, restoring or transforming our relation with God. That is not what salvation can mean. What it properly amounts to is our acceding to rational principles of conduct in law and ethics, and our becoming able to act on these. Jesus’ role in this is that of a teacher, by precept and example. His importance is as an inspiring trailblazer of what we will later call Enlightenment. For this he doesn’t need to be divine; indeed, he had better not be, if we want to maintain the notion of a self-contained impersonal order which God in his wisdom has set up, both in nature and for human society.

In the spirit of playful experimentation, let us substitute key Buddhist terms (in bold) for key Christian ones, and judge just how well that paragraph reads as a statement of Secular Buddhism, which attempts:

to hold on to the central figure of Śākyamuni, while cutting loose from the main soteriological doctrines of historical Buddhism. What is important about Śākyamuni is not that he inaugurates a new practice of gradual or sudden self-purification, leading to release from saṃsāra. That is not what enlightenment can mean. What it properly amounts to is our acceding to rational principles of conduct in law and ethics, and our becoming able to act on these. Śākyamuni‘s role in this is that of a teacher, by precept and example. His importance is as an inspiring trailblazer of what we now call enlightenment. For this he doesn’t need to be divine; indeed, he had better not be, if we want to maintain the notion of a self-contained impersonal order , both in nature and human society, within which we find the cessation of suffering.

Not perfect, but close enough. It is this kind of match between the rhetorical structures of Unitarianism and those of Secular Buddhism that suggest to me that Secular Buddhism is perhaps more a manifestation of popularized Protestant theological views cloaked in the borrowed raiment of the exotic, than it is of Buddhism. While Secular Buddhists may claim that this is just adapting Buddhism to the realities of the modern world, they apparently don’t see that the “realities” they are adapting to are those of a modern Christian world.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism: Unitarianism in Buddhist Drag?

  1. Treating modernist “Buddhism” as a new-ish Protestant sect seems like it may generate insights not only about Buddhist modernism, but perhaps also about contemporary Protestantism. (What does Unitarianism lack that secular Buddhism brings to the table? Some sort of actual practice, for one thing. And an Orientalism that promises a break with the failures of the Western tradition.)

    I’ve touched on this briefly here and in a bit more detail in the comment follow-ups here and here.

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