Dear Gayle --
Well, long time no see. It has been not quite a year since I left Evangel at FirstThings.com, and we haven't interacted much since I did so. I hope this note finds you in good spirits, and well.
You've been quite busy since I left -- you've become sort of an interview maven, which is a skill and a style I admire. I've always been a fan of Charlie Rose, and even as a kid I was fascinated by Phil Donahue, who always seemed at least to find interesting people to talk to -- which I think is three-quarters of conducting a decent interview.
Now, that said, you have interviewed a lot of people this last year from all manner of backgrounds -- but most of them basically, sociologically Christian. I think you'd agree with that description, but you might add more to it -- I'll leave that to you. My point in bringing it up is that obviously your blogging has taken a turn to cover cultural Christianity in a very broad sense, which is an interesting approach for someone writing on a blog named "Evangel".
This of course, goes back to the reason I left the Evangel team back in August 2010, and we don't need to rehash that here. But the last interview you posted was something further down the road than I think you intend to go, and I wanted to bring it to your attention.
You interviewed Fr. Dr. Leo D. Lefebure, a Georgetown University professor of theology. As you know, he's a Catholic priest teaching at a Catholic university, and it should come as no surprise that he works or reasons inside a Catholic approach to his subject. It's sort of boldly-evident that Fr. Leo is a thinker inside the boundaries of Lumen Gentium and Vatican II in his approach to Buddhism -- and why not? FirstThings.com is, of course, a Catholic venue at its core in spite of its odd mix of conservatism and ecumenism (both terms which here could probably use some unpacking, but this is not that kind of blog post).
Now, I bring it up only for one reason: while there is something cosmopolitan and sort of civicly-gracious about examining Buddhism for things is it can "teach" to Christianity, there are a couple of things about that approach which, I think, you might have found unsettling and also might has asked Fr. Leo about.
The first is that Fr. Leo does some interesting things in examining the Old Testament. For example, he says that we can know that the faith of the Israelites was informed by other faiths because they have incorporated the writings of non-Jews in the canon of Scripture. That’s true enough in a superficial way -- it may be true from a Catholic perspective on Scripture and inscripturation. But let’s face it: this is not an evangelical view of what and from where Scripture comes. And you didn’t call him on it at all -- you didn’t ask him what he means by it. You simply accepted -- and from my desk, seemed to agree with - his theory that it was the pluralistic approach of the Jews which yielded the kind of Scripture they produced. It sort of runs up against the wall of all those places where that Jewish Scripture says the Lord YHVH said such-and-such -- and frankly,its an anti-supernatural approach to the origin of Scripture. To say the least, it stands against the dichotomy Paul presents in the book of Romans where he says that all men have no excuse before God due to general revelation in creation, but the Jews specifically were entrusted with the Scriptures as a special revelation.
Next, he looks for practical examples, but overlooks the kind of society Buddhism creates. This is the part that interests me about his approach because it is so uncritical for an approach which, frankly, takes itself at face value to be the crtical thinker’s way of sorting out what is and isn’t useful in religion. Fr. Leo’s approach is an old-fashioned comparative religion approach to Christianity: you can study Christianity if you want, but you can’t really “get it” until you have studied other religions and found all the ways in which it is really just like them. But this approach overlooks that Christianity created a civilization which, after all, became the dominant way of life for most of the planet, and produced a company of societies which were the most prosperous and most generally beneficial to the welfare of the common man.
This distinction is particularly obvious in comparison to Buddhism, if I may say so. Buddhism has a 5-century head-start on Christianity, and none of the suppressive influences against it from outside forces. Yet by the year 1000, Buddhism had not created a society where the kind of wisdom Fr. leo is talking about was being practiced on a practical level. Indeed, Buddhist views of wisdom are probably responsible for the deeply anti-material view of truth in Hinduism -- which, let’s face it, is diametrically opposed the the Christian view of wisdom and wisdom literature.
Finally, I think we have to wonder about his approach to Christ specifically -- given his answers to your questions. Is it really helpful to say that it is by learning from those who, as Fr. Leo is generous enough to point out, reject the idea of God as creator who has an active role in the day-to-day operation of His world how to live in it? Or even how to discern the differences between right and wrong? It seems to me that the world-changing themes of the Gospel, and the implications of the person of Christ, are what buried b y Fr. Leo (at least in this interview) for the sake of spelling out the superficial similarities between some conclusions both religions assert. But let’s face it: the point of Buddhism is not love, and the point of Christ is. The former is explicitly about giving up the illusion that any kind of satisfaction can be found in this world, ad the latter says explicitly that there are beautiful, good, and true things in this world which we can and must see as gifts from God -- and he redeems but us and them at least in part so that we can enjoy them.
Now: so what?
Here are a couple of things I think it is important to take away here, and I hope they are worth your further consideration.
I'm not against studying or considering the religious systems of others at all -- I think you can't really preach to people that you know nothing about. But I’m concerned that studying them with the a priori assumption that these systems are mostly just like our system is nor really generous toward those systems, and not fair to ours. I think this comes out in any discussion with a real Buddhist -- who would probably be the first to say that his system is nothing like ours, and his view of wisdom is nothing like ours. Even the ones who would say that we can agree on what wisdom is will, in 10 minutes of conversation, find themselves denying whole swaths of information which are necessary parts of the Christian faith and the Christian ideal of wisdom.
I'm also not against considering the merits of other ways of living. I think we have to be serious about whether we are true to our convictions or not, and the only way to do that at some point is to try to see ourselves as others see us. To do this, we have to know something about them and how they live.
But my concern is this: that the Christian is improved by considering something other than Christ. This is certainly Fr. Leo’s thrust in your interview with him, and it came across to me that you agree with him pretty broadly. Let’s assume for a minute that, for example, the Christian can be deeply and greatly moved by the act of the Janist monk sweeping the path in front of himself for the sake of mercy on the insects that may or may not be before him. That is: the attention to detail there, and the view that perhaps one does not know even what one may be doing by simply walking without a care toward the least or creatures beneath one’s feet, can be a moment in which many Christians find themselves questioning whether or not they are merciful people.
But think about this: is the Janist view of mercy really the Christian view? Does that act actually reflect the view of all things which requires Christ to be the centerpiece of aking sense of it? oes it even have an application outside of the practicioner’s commitment to that philosophy? No indeed: what happens instead is that the Christian, interpreting the act though his own lens (at whatever level of maturity he might be), must turn back to Christ to make sense of this activity, both for good and for the limits of such a thing.
And this, I think, was the key failing of the message of your interview with Fr. Leo: in spite of being at Evangel, it never really got back to the Evangel. Some others would go on about how this is what you get when you mix it up with Catholics and so on: I’m not interested in that polemical hoopla today. What I am interested in is your approach to interacting with a diverse world through the process of interviews and blogging because I think you’re a woman of good faith.
I think you believe in Christ, Gayle. I think you trust him. I think that, even after you put down a book like Fr. Leo’s book, you don’t want to be a person who puts off the whole world because it is still the place where God meets man, and where Christ saves people. What I am asking you to do as you continue your hobby of blogging is to see it as a vocation for the sake of Christ and not for the sake of some other multicultural endeavor. I am certain you believe that, in the final account, there will be people from every tribe, tongue, and nation in the presence of God, worshipping Him. But they will not be missing the center of attention, the one who is worthy of all that honor and priase, who is also the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
My hope is that your will take the seriousness your love of other people and pass it through that vision of Christ as you continue blogging. That is the true impact of the evangel on all things, and I know you want to see it come to pass.
So with that, I leave you in His name, and I hope in his good grace and great goodness.