When I was Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Skidmore College in upstate NY, I also taught in the Religion Dept. I collaborated with them on bringing significant scholars and practitioners of religion to campus. Every year we sponsored lecturers representing varied faith traditions. It wasn’t long before I realized that lectures on Buddhism drew very large student audiences. On the other hand, lectures related to Christianity were poorly attended. For instance, we brought Konrad Ryushin Marchaj to Skidmore twice in four years, both times to very full lecture halls. Ryushin was abbot of nearby Zen Mountain Monastery from 2009 to 2015. One indication of how engaged the students were, the Q and A was always long. But to take one example of Christian lectures, a wonderful speaker on altar paintings from northern Europe garnered only a dozen of us in an empty hall.
I puzzled over this for the longest time. Finally, I surmised that the appeal of the Buddhist talks is that there was no theology. None of the usual wrangling points came up–no God, no virgin birth, no sin, salvation or dismal church history or hierarchical assumptions. Instead, there were novel concepts like dharma, etc. As one of my students said, in Christianity there is no praxis, no practical religious life, as there is in Buddhism. Strike one for me.
So I decided to take a different approach. I brought a unique speaker up from NYC who made his reputation doing impersonations of evangelical preachers, except with liberal progressive political content. His name was Rev. Billy, the “minister” of the “Stop Shopping Gospel Church.” He always appeared with a back-up group of three gospel singers, and he was a fixture at Occupy Wall Street events. I reserved the performance space at the student center, anticipating a crowd. But there was no crowd, and they didn’t find his antics particularly funny or his critique of conventional Christianity up their alley either. Strike two for me–!
The next step was interfaith dialogue. I had attended a campus chaplain conference recently at Yale where I heard Eboo Patel, the head of the Chicago based Interfaith Youth Corps, speak. So I sponsored an entirely student run panel discussion about personal faith, which didn’t draw much audience either because it was–too personal. There just are not enough people who come to campus with enough of a religious background for this subject to matter. The plurality of students nowadays mark “NONE” on the religious preference survey. And those that do have a religious preference only have very partial exposures to their nominally held religion.
I should have believed it when the national student directory of American colleges and universities tagged Skidmore as the most secular campus, as most colleges and universities have become over the last 50 years. And that’s where the importance of Thich Nhat Hanh who died last week comes in. It’s hard to say who was the most important religious figure in the last 25 years, but Desmond Tutu, who also died last week, and TNH would be at the top in their different ways. Nhat Hahn benefitted millions upon millions of people in teaching Buddhist meditation as “mindfulness.” Looking deeply was his spiritual goal, and it necessitates commitment and discipline. This was the praxis that my student said Christianity lacked. TNH wanted to replace the order, “Don’t just stand there, do something,” with “Don’t just do something, stand still–!”
But he participated in and symbolized a growing accord between world religions over his 50-year career as a monk. He became the model of interfaith dialogue, engaging principally in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, having written books like “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” and “Going Home, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers.” You could say he caught the wave of interreligious curiosity and religious war fatigue following the Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1898, the same wave that Vatican II caught in the 1960s. Religious people were starting to learn from each other–for the first time ever. TNH was motivated by very close relationships he had with people he admired who were believers in other religions. His goal was to help people see the affinities among the different religions and the good that there is in all of them. His premise was: you can only know your own religion if you know another; in fact, it is by knowing another that you understand your own.
But this movement not only faced headwinds in the increasingly secularized cultures. Worse, in every tradition the anchor was out, because there is no authorization in any religion for interreligious dialogue. The most we find in the Bible is hospitality to the stranger which was probably never envisioned as contemplating the possibility of there being truth outside our own tradition.
Let’s go back to Jesus who in our scripture lesson instructed the disciples as he sent them out, not to go to the Gentiles but to “the lost sheep of Israel.” The phrase gets repeated when he tells the Canaanite woman he couldn’t heal her daughter because his mission was to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus’ religious purpose seems to have been for Jews to be better Jews. Jesus seems to have been a “restorationist,” to revive the integrity of the Temple [EP Sanders]. It took the first Christians only a few decades before they reconceived Jesus’ mission as being to all nations, but how could that possibly happen? Scholars explain that the early church turned its back on the Jews, whom it believed responsible for Jesus’ death [Amy-Jill Levine]. The Jewish Jesus of a Jewish sect in the earliest gospel record became the royal Christ of the emerging Gentile church, then became the avenging angel harrowing the Jews of Europe and Muslims across northern Africa and the Holy Land. After that, it was the Inquisition and the attempted suppression of the Reformation. No wonder today’s students were bound to conclude: please, anything but Christianity.
What is a liberal, progressive church like Eliot and the United Church of Christ to do? We can adopt the very mission that Jesus pursued–to reclaim the lost soul of our religion, of Christianity. Maybe we temporarily suspend the dialogue with other religions until we have a better personal grip on our own. We certainly can develop our own praxis–
Receive scripture from the outside inward. You will have your next opportunity beginning next Sunday with Yonder Moynihan Gillihan. Be in meditation during Song, Word and Prayer. Worship God in spirit and in truth. Deeply reflect on what needs forgiveness in your life and in this nation. Apply Christ’s teachings in what we consume, how we spend our time, and how we treat others.