After talking about the Buddhist statue controversy at St. Mary’s South Brisbane, we were reminded of just how many similar teachings and attitudes exist between Jesus and Buddha. One of the most prominent behaviors which these two prophets share is that neither one wrote anything down. By today’s standards (where everyone seems to be writing about every triviality under the sun, and then sharing it with millions of online strangers) the idea of possessing profound wisdom but then not writing it down sounds absurd.
Why in the world did Buddha and Jesus do that? After all, it certainly would have solved a lot of headaches and conflicts had they just put their thoughts down on paper (ok, parchment).
If we return to consider the “Buddha” incident at St. Mary’s, an answer to this conundrum actually emerges. As we mentioned in our earlier post, some Christians (including a few St. Mary’s parishioners) mistakenly confused the placement of Buddhist statue with idol worship. Idol worship is something that greatly concerned Jesus and Buddha.1
Not so much the worship of golden calves or physical idols, but the far more insidious idolatry of the written word–because when words become canonized, codified, and literalized they quickly lose their transcendent, life-transforming, power. The living Word becomes dead letter scripture, which now petrified can be used to bludgeon all those who disagree.
During the 1870s, the American social reformer Robert Dale Owen eloquently stated that: “The worship of words is more pernicious than the worship of images. Grammatolatry is the worst species of idolatry. We have arrived at an era in which literalism is destroying faith “The letter killeth.”
If we were only arriving at Christianity’s destructive era in Owen’s time, then today we certainly have reached its denouement. The question that remains is whether or not from these ashes a new, brighter, Phoenix of faith will rise for Progressive Christians. If the goings-on at St. Mary’s South Brisbane are any indication, there is some reason for hope.
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- Do not believe in anything because it is rumored and spoken of by many; do not think it is proof of its truth. Do not believe merely because the written statement of some old sage is produced; do not be sure that the writing has never been revised by the sage, or can be relied on – Buddha – Wheel of the Law [↩]
In an earlier posting, we lent our moral support to the progressive ministry of St. Marys Church, South Brisbane in their dispute with the Roman Catholic Church. The issue that seems to be receiving the most debate (and disagreement) among Progressive Christians is Fr. Peter Kennedy’s placing of a Buddhist statue inside the church.
A few have stated that this is the equivalent of promoting idolatry, something which no Christian can tolerate. First, we should set the record straight and recognize that the statue in question was not of Buddha but a Buddhist monk praying. But even if it were of Buddha, this shouldn’t really matter. Gautama Buddha did not profess to be God but a man, and he is not deified by Buddhists.
If having iconography or statues within a place of worship is equivalent to idol worship, then we Christians are (as they say) guiltier than sin. Statues of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints fill thousands of churches, and cross jewelry adorns the bodies of millions. Yet most Christians are no guiltier of idol worship than most Buddhists.
In our meditation on How We Worship, we mentioned how rituals only point towards divine truths. They are not spiritual canisters that contain power in and of themselves. The same goes for religious iconography like statues: be they statues of Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddha. Religious followers are expected to use them as visual reference points to help them turn inward toward a communion with their own inner divinity.
In other words, when the Buddhist monk kneels down in prayer, he (like the Christian) is seeking God’s Kingdom with reverence and humility. And that is something Progressive Christians should not only support but welcome into our churches–recalling Jesus’s words that those who are not against us are with us (Mark 9:40).