Merry Christmas: The Indefinite Malleability of Doctrine, again

There are many Christians whose understanding of Christianity, that is, their theology, is a view of the nature of human existence, our relations with others, and with the world around us with which I feel quite compatible. (The three categories—human existence, our relations with others, and with the world around us—come from an existential philosopher I read years ago but whose name I’d have to look up, but are intended to cover everything without getting all like metaphysical.)

One such is evident in this op-ed piece, appearing Christmas morning in the NYTimes: The Christmas Revolution (link). The author asserts an understanding of Christianity as a tradition that values the physical, material world and human existence positively as God’s Creation. He distinguishes this view from the dualism of Platonic thought, which valued the eternal and transcendent positively, while viewing material, physical existence negatively.

Admitting that Platonic dualism had a long-standing role in medieval Christian theology, he goes on to assert that it has been left behind—that Christian theology has been freed of its Platonic encrustations as it were:

This Platonic view had considerable influence in the early church, but that influence faded because it was in tension with Christianity’s deepest teachings. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, God declares creation to be good — and Jesus, having entered the world, ratified that judgment. The incarnation attests to the existence of the physical, material world. Our life experiences are real, not shadows. The incarnation affirms the delight we take in earthly beauty and our obligation to care for God’s creation. This was a dramatic overturning of ancient thought.

While I find much to appreciate about the idea of a theology that values Creation positively, the above is crypto-theology rather than history. If we think of the enduring misogyny of so much of contemporary Christianity, itself oftentimes cloaked in the rhetoric of a theology of life, then the idea that a dualistic theology was left behind must be called into question.

If we think of the abuse of the natural environment long seen as part of the extension of God’s orderly dominion over wilderness, the chaotic domain of Satan, then the idea that a dualistic theology was left behind must be called into question.

If we think of the dehumanization of blacks, Muslims, Asians, Latino/as, in defense of a white Christian America, then the idea that a dualistic theology was left behind must be called into question.

This is not to claim that these strains of Christian culture do not go unchallenged by the theology that positively values Creation in all its forms. Nor is it to claim that there are not problematics in Buddhist thought as well—instances in which prejudicial treatment, exploitation, or abuse of people have been justified by reference to a moralistic interpretation of karma, for example.

It is instead intended to call attention, first, to the tendency to claim that some particular theology is without qualification Christian theology generally. In this case, however, the author also participates in the conservative rhetoric of Christian exceptionalism, as if other religious traditions do not have their own strains of thought equivalent to the values being claimed as the unique Western heritage deriving from—and only from—Christianity. It is, for example, true that the humanistic values that largely define modern Western culture derive in part from Christianity, but it is equally true that they derive in part from the recovery of ancient, i.e., pagan thought during the Renaissance. Buddhist modernism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was certainly as “forward thinking” as its Christian contemporary theology of the social gospel.

The seeming intentionally ahistorical conflation of the teachings of Jesus with modern theology is evident when the author claims that “Christianity played a key role in ending slavery and segregation.” This ignores the fact that the southern churches actively defended slavery prior to the American Civil War and segregation in the mid-twentieth century. The uncomfortable parts of the history are then further marginalized by claiming that they are simply the result of human inadequacy—

Christians have often fallen short of what followers of Jesus are called to be. We have seen this in the Crusades, religious wars and bigotry; in opposition to science, in the way critical thought is discouraged and in harsh judgmentalism. To this day, many professing Christians embody the antithesis of grace.

This is, however, to claim that the author’s own theology is simply the correct one, and that those who adhere to different theologies are only failing to live up to the author’s theology. I am confident that there are many other theologians who would maintain not only that the author’s theology is wrong, but that their own theology is the only correct one. Again, this is not unique to Christian history, as Buddhists have done much the same thing in asserting the superiority of one interpretation of doctrine over another.

These leads to the second, more general, issue to be highlighted here, which is the indefinite malleability of doctrine. Doctrine and its interpretation does not provide a firm foundation. Neither, of course, does social convention. The error is not with doctrine or with social convention, but rather with the desire for a firm foundation, some absolute point of reference from which to construct a set of values that are equally absolute. This is where I believe Buddhist thought does make a unique contribution, that is, by calling into question the very desire for an absolute grounding of our life, our decisions, our values, our actions, our commitments, our loves, our likes, and all of their opposites.

Instead of the religion of happiness, I think that perhaps Buddhism can be characterized as the religion of successful insecurity.


One thought on “Merry Christmas: The Indefinite Malleability of Doctrine, again

  1. Interesting, as always… I like the idea of Buddhism as the religion of successful insecurity! And yet, also good to point out that Buddhisms have their own versions of legitimizing prejudice. However…. I also feel there is an element of “protesting too much” about the current reworking of everything (Buddhism as well as Christianity) to claim that the only real ground is the most basic human physical experience. Where and how does one draw the line? One person’s “relations with others” may be another person’s “metaphysical.” The sensed world of one form of life may be another’s “intangible” (think of plants). And so on….

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