“In Buddhism no creator,” says the Dalai Lama during a public conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu recounted in The Wisdom of Compassion: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan, recently abridged and published by the Huffington Post.
It typifies the contributions the spiritual leader of Tibet makes, all of which raise questions. That’s not surprising, because Buddhism runs on negations. We’re to take the path of renunciation in order to free ourselves from binding illusions: renounce the illusions of selfhood, renounce the comfortable assurances of conventional wisdom, even renounce God. Even Buddhism needs to be questioned. “There are godly religions and there are godless religions. Who decides who is right?” asks the spiritual leader of Tibet.
By contrast, Christianity puts an emphasis on affirmation: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Faith involves drawing close in warm commitment. In Buddhism, paradox evacuates to the point of emptying. We cannot find enlightenment unless we turn away from the self that seeks it. The Christian paradox of the God become man fills us up to the point of bursting.
That’s why Christianity is a religion of creeds and orthodoxies. We’re run down by God, as it were, and taken captive. Archbishop Tutu says as much in some of his contributions to the conversation. Even though we misuse our freedom, the slightest turn toward goodness incites a divine stampede toward us. “God forgets about God’s divine dignity and he rushes and embraces you. ‘You came back, you came back. I love you. Oh how wonderful, you came back.’”
But Tutu knows how to compliment and seduce his listeners. He’s able to weave the struggle against apartheid and gay liberation into a tapestry of negations and affirmations that is typical of modern and liberal Christianity. “The God that I worship is almighty, and also incredibly weak.” He weeps over human sinfulness, and yet embraces us with His love. He permits religious pluralism, permits evils done in his name; nevertheless, Tutu gives a ringing endorsement of divine sovereignty. “I would not have survived without the faith of knowing that this is God’s world and that God is in charge.” Then he tacks again. “Of course, sometimes, you want to whisper in God’s ear, ‘God, for goodness sake, we know that you are in charge, but why don’t you make this more obvious?’”
It’s a virtuoso performance. We want to believe something. Moral truth and maybe God, or perhaps a higher power. But we’ve grown weary of the divine embrace. We don’t want to be chased down, tackled, and taken prisoner by metaphysical realities. Jesus accosted fisherman, telling them, “Come, follow me.” What was once a heroic dream in the West—to come under the command of the King of Kings!—now seems a nightmare of oppression. I’d rather just live my own life, thank you.
For the most part intellectual techniques of critique help us break free. Elaine Pagels specializes in books that call orthodoxies into question. Why privilege the New Testament over the suppressed and supposedly heretical Gnostic gospels? When it comes to God, Pagels is pretty sure that the bishops and theologians of the church have misunderstood Her.
Buddhism often plays the same role in the Western imagination. The Dalai Lama’s negations make him a lead blocker, opening up a wide hole for Archbishop Tutu to run through. God respects our autonomy, the Christian leader says; God regrets our misrepresentations of his teachings. “God is not a Christian,” he announces, “God allows us to misunderstand her.” The audience in Vancouver erupts with applause.
The Dalai Lama is a very astute and capable politician who has done a masterly job of securing support for Tibet in its ongoing struggle against Chinese domination. I suspect he’s sometimes cynical in his spiritual pronouncements. He must know that the applause does not indicate appreciation or even understanding of Buddhism. Its negations are meant to humiliate and overcome what we so dearly love, which is our self. That’s never something that brings applause.
“God allows us to misunderstand her.” Who’s to say which religion is true? Isn’t God too big for any one religion? These and other negations make Church, sacraments, Scripture seem less certain, less reliable, less authoritative. We don’t experience this as unpleasant or disorienting. On the contrary, it’s a delicious doubt. We want “organized religion,” which in the West means Christianity, to loosen its grip over culture, politics—and our souls. For our goal is neither enlightenment nor salvation, but instead to live by our own lights and on our own terms.
And so our age applauds the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and other adepts of negation and critique. God without priests. Churches without authority. Faiths that are optional. It’s wonderfully liberating. The divine can’t get his hands on us anymore! Now we can be spiritual without being religious. It’s the luxury good human beings have always wanted: bespoke worship, idols made to spec.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
“God Is Not a Christian: Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s Extraordinary Talk on God and Religion,” Huffington Post
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