Who Are We? Part 3: Buddhism

READING: Luke 9:23-25
Then Jesus said to them, “You who wish to be my followers must deny your very self, take up your cross every day, and follow in my steps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, and if you’ll lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What profit is there in gaining the whole world if you lose and forfeit your heart in the process?

REFLECTION: Who Are We? Part 3: Buddhism

So last week we talked a whole lot about New Thought. Today, the third part of the series looking at the question, “who are we?”, we look at the Buddhist take on the question.

Last week, I also mentioned I would discuss some of my concerns about the New Thought paradigm. Actually, Buddhism’s critique of New Thought gets at my concerns very well. So by looking at Buddhism’s critique of New Thought in the first part of this talk, we are also looking at my concerns.

I first want to be clear. I do not mean to disregard or dismiss New Thought completely. It has so much good to offer. As I said, it helped bring down the harmful regime of Calvinism. What’s more, it was a huge step up from the hyper-negative and degrading teaching of Calvinism that pervaded the churches and the culture of the time. We should also note that no one has been intentionally killed nor has there been war in the name of Christian Science or the Unity Church. We cannot say the same for traditional Christianity or Calvinism.

Still, New Thought is not always helpful. I won’t get into the obvious point of New Thought’s avoidance of traditional medicine and medication. I will talk more about the side-effects of its hyper-focus, its extra strong focus, on positive thinking and correct thinking.

What is that side-effect? Well, it looks a like Calvinism in its effect.

Calvinism had people working hard to prove to themselves and to others that they were part of the elect, the chosen, the saved. New Thought has people working hard to be healthy, wealthy and wise and in a godly way. Both Calvinism and New Thought result in a lot of self-monitoring, self-checking, self-correction. To externally show vulnerability and weakness of any sort means you are not living up to who you believe you are as well as what you proclaim and believe about God. So there is a great deal of guilt and  sensing failure. I liken it to the times I see co-op people coming out of Hannaford. Yeah, I know I am supposed to be shopping at the co-op. It is good for the local economy and the co-op itself, and I should shop at the co-op more. But I want to save money or it is more convenient, so I end up at Hannaford. Yet I still feel guilty about it when I see co-op people coming out of Hannaford. Multiply this several times and you get what I am saying about the side-effect of Calvinism and New Thought. It is that sense of guilt for not living up to a certain standard that is set high.

Buddhism’s critique goes a step further. The Buddha actually confronted the New Thought tradition of his day, the Vedic tradition. The Vedic tradition in the Buddha’s time viewed the Self much like the New Thought movement did.

The Vedic and New Thought traditions view the true human self as like God. The self in the Vedic tradition, called atman, is:
1.)  Autonomous – tied to God, the core self is not reliant or dependent on anything else but self-subsistent, self-sustaining.
2.)  Unconditioned – like God, the core self is not conditioned, influenced, or effected by circumstances or what is happening around it
3.)  Unchanging – like God, the core self’s existence does not morph or evolve or change.
4.)  Perfect – like God and tied to God, the core self is utterly good and true

The Buddha said, this kind of self, an eternal, unconditioned, unchanging, and

perfect self does not exist. This is the famous teaching of No-Self, anatman in Sanskrit. It is not no-self at all, it is no self as defined by the Hindu philosophers of the time. The Buddha said that the only thing we can say about what is core to the human life is this:
1.)  we are not completely autonomous, we rely on other people, other things, and others’ actions both to be born and to grow up and to live. Without trees, I’d run out of breath. Without clouds, the earth would dry and blow away. Without my parents, I wouldn’t exist. Without someone who fed me, I would have died. Without someone who embraced me, I would be very unhappy and un-centered. In other words, interdependence and dependence on other people, things, and actions marks earthly life.
2.)  We are conditioned, influenced, effected by the circumstances all around us. Something essential in us is effected by war, violence, poverty, hatred, etc. An 8 year-old growing up in the very different circumstances of Syria is very different and will be very different that my 8 year-old growing up here. Something essential in us is effected by tragedies like abuse and conflict.
3.)  We change. Essential parts of us change. Our own language points to this. Self-improvement. If the self is unchanging it cannot improve, can it?
4.)  The self experiences suffering, struggle, and sin in this life. And it is affected by it. Perfection when you look at it is the absence of suffering and struggle and sin. This is not real in this life. We are prone to change, prone to growth, prone to cultivation and development. But never prone to perfection, at least in this life.

So the Buddhist project is to practice seeing things as they are. Buddhist practice is the practice of seeing ourselves as we truly are and of seeing who we are in relationship to other beings. And when we engage in this practice, we soon see that who we are is inextricably connected to who other beings are. Our individual self’s existence is linked to others’ existence. We see that our self and others selves dance together, mutually influenced, changed, conditioned, effected. The practice is seeing what Dr. King saw and then applying it in as many moments we can. 

Dr. King said:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

In many ways, the Buddhist view of the self is closer to Paul’s view of the old self, a self that is in his words, “merely of the flesh.” It is like the body. The old self is changing and mortal and wholly dependent on God’s grace. Yet too often that old self is seen as what it is not, as perfect, as separate and independent, as not needing anything, anyone, or any kind of grace.

So next week, we will talk about Paul’s view of self.

Who Are We? Part 2: New Thought

In a chapter of her excellent book Bright-Sided titled “The Dark Roots of Optimism,” author Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the roots of the self-help movement are found in what the new movement stood against. The beginning of the Self-Help movement arose out of a rejection of the pervading world-view of the time, Calvinism.

Calvinism is what the Puritans and the Pilgrims shared in common. The early days of the Congregational Church had Calvinism as its theological foundation. Same with the Presbyterian church, the Reformed Church, and even some Baptist traditions.

Calvinism can best be explained with an acrostic that is famously used. TULIP. Yep, using the name of a beautiful flower to describe a rather unbeautiful theology.

T = Total Depravity – the human self is marked by sinfulness from cradle to grave
U = Unconditional Election – through no fault or condition of their own, a select few are marked for salvation 
L = Limited Atonement – Christ died for this select few alone
I = Irresistible Grace – Those of that select few will not be able to resist God’s grace
P = Perseverance of the Saints – The select few will live eternally in heaven

This setup had a sordid effect on how people lived. Everyone wanted to think they were part of the Elect, part of the Chosen few, those included in the crowd of the saved. And they wanted to show their neighbor they were indeed part of the elect, the chosen, the saved. How might we know someone is part of the elect, the chosen, the saved? Well, they will live upstanding, pure lives. They’d work hard and behave well.

You know the term the Protestant Work Ethic? Well, it comes from the time Calvinism ruled. If you were part of the elect, the chosen, the saved, you naturally worked hard and long. Your work ethic was the badge displaying your membership in Calvinism’s Elect.

Now, we are not just talking physical work here. We are talking mental work, the hard work of self-examination and self-monitoring. If you were part of God’s elect, the chosen, the saved, it is only natural you will think the right ways and do the right things in every aspect of life, rising above your sinful nature.

Life in the Calvinist world of 17th and 18th century America meant this – you waged a constant battle to prove to yourself and to others that you are part of the elect, the chosen, the saved. You constantly were on guard as you worked hard to exhibit that your sinful nature had been reformed by God’s goodness.

Calvinism goes back to something we touched on last week. A certain interpretation of Adam and Eve’s departure from the Garden of Eden. 

Beginning with Augustine in the 4th-5th centuries, Adam’s sin was deemed the Fall. Calvin said beginning with Adam and Eve’s sin, the human soul became darkened with sin to the point of total depravity. The human self is as a result so completely degraded that we are born with the cancer of sin. Calvin says without God’s help, that cancer of sin will kill us. Because of this cancer of sin, we are naturally sinful, our wills are naturally toward sin meaning without God’s help we will choose the way of sin. Knowing we are separated from God, knowing we are no longer in Eden.

Yes, this is a dark root. Calvinism offers a completely negative view of the human self.

Beginning with the Unitarians in the early 1800s, this negative view was soon rejected in favor of a more positive view. Unitarianism rejected Calvinist’s first point and thus everything that followed. William Ellery Channing famously declared in 1819 in introducing Unitarian Christianity to the world there is goodness in us not total depravity. 

But Unitarianism was just the first step in the exit from Calvinism. Unitarianism spawned Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism which came to prominence in the late 1830’s. Transcendentalism was Unitarianism on low-grade steroids. It posited that not only was the human self good, but that the human soul and God’s soul were connected. The human soul is in fact the fullest expression of God. There is a oneness, a unity shared between the divine and the human self. Christ as the fully realized human on earth is a picture of what we can be if we let go of our ego and cultivate the true self.

Transcendentalism led to what is called New Thought. New Thought is Unitarianism on very powerful steroids. Humans in New Thought are basically copies of Christ, we are meant to be. Sure, we may not know it or may not actualize it, but we are little Christs, divine beings on earth. We just need to claim this reality.

New Thought has an interesting history. It is actually a very important part of our history. For some sense of historical context, Christian Science and the Unity Church are progenies of New Thought. 

New Thought begins with a man named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. Quimby was, as Ehrenreich describes it, “a self-educated watchmaker and inventor in Portland, Maine,” which is just 150 miles from here. Quimby had a fascination with metaphysics – things beyond the material world – , health, and spirituality. “He filled his journals with his ideas about “the science of life and happiness.”

His most famous disciple would become even more significant historically. Her name is Mary Baker Eddy. Mary Baker Eddy was born and raised in Bow, New Hampshire just some 75 miles from here. She became a patient of Quimby’s in the 1860’s and saw her chronic illnesses dissipate. She became a proponent of Quimby’s New Thought philosophy and eventually one of its greatest prophets. In 1879, she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Tilton, NH. The name of the church is telling. Like Calvin interestingly, Quimby and Eddy tied their understanding to Christ and the Bible. Christ is the healer. The Christian scientist is the one that taps into the Christ within to heal him or herself. 

As Ehrenreich writes, “New Thought seemed almost designed as a rebuke of the Calvinism many of its adherents had been terrified by as children.” 

New Thought, NT, the New New Testament in a way, saw God as benevolent (all-loving), as imminent and omnipresent (present here, now, and everywhere), as omnipotent (all-powerful). The big difference New Thought argued for is their focus on God not as personal being per se but as the all-powerful Spirit or Mind moving and living in the universe.

As for humans, New Thought says, because we are Spirit first and foremost, we are an extension of God who is Spirit. New Thought says there is only One Mind, “infinite and all-encompassing. And humanity is “a part of this universal mind, is a part of God.”

As for the question of the Fall and the existence of sin, well, sin is simply wrong thinking, an error in our outlook, a deluded understanding that we are not perfect and whole like God.

The job of the New Thought practitioner is to correct our wrong-thinking, our erred outlook, our deluded understanding of things by tapping into “the boundless power of the Spirit [of Christ].”

The ramifications of this was not just spiritual. Disease and illness were, according to New Thought, a result of wrong-thinking and could be cured by correct-thinking.

This idea was especially poignant and alluring at the time. Stress-induced illnesses and diseases were everywhere. Calvinism’s negative worldview was not benign. It effected people’s minds and their bodies, their mental and physical health. In fact, there were names for this stress and oppression induced illness – invalidism and neurasthenia (weakness of the nerves).

New Thought spoke to this endemic of stress and nervousness related illness. Christian Science goes as far as saying illness is a creation of the mind. Correct our thinking and outlook, cure the illness. No drugs required. Positive-thinking gives way to positive things – health, wellness, wealth, high self-worth - coming your way.

As you may see, the self-help movement has its beginnings here. The Power of Positive-Thinking of Norman Vincent Peale, The “If you can dream, you can do it” of Robert Schuller, the Law of Attraction and Motivational Speaker Guru-ship of Wayne Dyer and Anthony Robbins, the Prosperity Gospel of Kenneth Hagin and Joel Olsteen – they can all be traced back to New Thought.

Now, I have problems with some of New Thought philosophy. It doesn’t reach a good balance, in my opinion. In fact, it is more like Calvinism than we think, all of which I will talk about next week. 

I end by saying one thing I think New Thought was integral in bringing us – it helped end the stranglehold Calvinism had on us. The TULIP Calvinism gave us was not the tulip we needed. New Thought helped us to see this and helped put Calvin’s TULIP to pasture. For this, we should be forever grateful.

Who Are We? Part 1: Intro

The Hebrew word used here is tselem. Some versions translate tselem as image. Others as likeness or even resemblance. In Genesis 5, the same term is used to describe Adam’s son Seth. Adam had a son in his own likeness, in his own image, the New International Version puts it.

The Eastern Orthodox highlights this doctine known as Imago Dei, in the image of God. The Greek word used for tselem and one the Orthodox tradition makes central to its faith practice is the word "icon." We are created as icons of God. We are a tangible picture that God chose to show what God is like. And if we contemplate this reality deeply enough, God is revealed to us.

This word icon is also associated with Christ. Colossions 1:15 states Christ is the icon of God, the perfect, uncreated icon of God.

The Jewish understanding of the notion we know as Imago Dei makes it even clearer. Here, the literal meaning of the word tselem is shadow. We are created to be God’s shadow. We are literally God’s shadow  here on earth.  As God’s shadow, we are the outline, the representation of God in the world of shapes and form and matter, all of which God isn’t.  God cannot have a shape or a form or have matter. That would make God a thing. The closest we can get to actually seeing God is the shadow we each represent.

There is another important thing to consider when thinking about the idea of being created as the shadow of God is elucidated by the song I learned in grade school – “Me and my shadow, walking down the avenue.”

Then there is that poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that many children once learned memorized in grammar school:

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. 

Imagine God singing the song:

Me and my shadow
Strolling down the avenue.

Or reciting the poem:

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. 

The effect of this is what? God is with us in the most intimate and closest of ways. Wherever we are God is with us, yes. God and I stroll along the avenue. God and I go in and out together. Yet there is more. God and I are not only connected in a necessary way, God is the source of my very existence. Just as there can be no shadow without that which is being represented, we cannot be without God. God is the reason for our very existence.

Do you know the word “anthropology?” Maybe you took a class in college or read something about cultural anthropology. Anthropology is the study of the human. In traditional theology, it has a deeper meaning. Anthropology here means the studying of the nature of humankind. Who we are, in other words, is what anthropology is all about.

There is high anthropology and low anthropology. High anthropology means that there is a high view, a positive view, of the human self. Low anthropology is the opposite, a low view, a negative view of the human self.

Well, in Genesis 1, it seems we have are offered a high-anthropology. The view of the human is high, positive. We are as close to God as God’s shadow. We are not God. Theology – the view of God – and anthropology – the view of humankind - are different. Now, we are not little gods, but God created us to be as close to God as a shadow is to what it represents.

But something happens to that exalted reality, doesn’t it? Just because we are made to be a certain way, doesn’t mean we always follow suit, does it?

Of course, as the story goes, Adam and Eve, created as God’s image, take a wrong turn. This wrong turn complicates things, complicated things in a tremendous way.

I don’t want to look at that story right now, the story of what has been called in the Western Christian tradition, “The Fall.” I will leave that for another sermon. What I do want to look at is the immediate aftermath. What happens to Adam and Eve in the aftermath of that wrong turn? We know what the before looks like – created in God’s image. What does the after look like?

To sum it up, the after for Adam and Eve is this – before, they were naked before God, fully open and seen by God and fine with that.  After, they clothe and cover, hiding themselves from God. Of course, this is metaphorical. The image of God is now cloaked and covered over somehow. Something is blocking the light that caused the shadow and so that shadow is distorted and not clear.

Before, God and Adam and Eve were united, communing together in Eden. After, they are escorted out of Eden. In other words, there is now some distance between God and the human.

Before, human lacked the kind of suffering that got in the way of communing with God. After, suffering is a reality and it effects our connection with God.

All of this is to say, we have a lower-anthropology. The high-anthropology of life in the Garden is marred. And we face the consequence of a life outside that Garden.

We must be clear here, there is disagreement about what the so-called Fall meant. The Jewish tradition don’t see a fall. It sees in Adam and Eve a warning sign. They see in Adam and Eve a fundamental example of what it means to fail living the way God created us to live. Did Adam and Eve drop the ball, and fail to be who they were created to be, yes. A change in who they were as humans, no.

Eastern Orthodox tradition sees the story of Adam and Eve’s wrong turn closer to the Jewish way. Sin is introduced, yes. The idea is akin to smoking your first cigarette. Yes, even that first cigarette effects our lungs. And yes, we are exponentially more likely to smoke a second cigarette if we smoke that first one. Still, the smoking of that second cigarette is not a guarantee or a given. Sin is not inherited, in other words. It just becomes a more tempting option. Nonetheless, imago dei, our creation in God’s image has not disappeared, it is simply hidden by sin.

Western Christianity sees more of a break. Adam’s sin created a chasm that resulted in a degradation of who we were created to be, so much so that all there is depravity in us. The image of God is now distorted, degraded, and the human soul is now depraved as a result of Adam’s wrong turn.

I for one accept the more Jewish-Eastern Orthodox view of things here.  

What this all shows, though, is that there is a tension even in the Christian tradition when it comes to how we view the human self. There is a tension between the higher view of human nature found in the Eastern Orthodox church and in the liberal Christian traditions and the lower view of human nature found in the Conservative, Evangelical traditions.

But we also see this tension culturally. On one hand, we have the self-help movement’s view of the human self, which takes a very high and positive view. And on the other hand, we have science-based materialists who see the human as merely a more evolved primate operating on the basis of the human brain, natural selection and surviving as a species.

So who are we? Looking at this tension between a higher view of the human self and the lower view will tell us a lot. History, how we’ve historically viewed the human self, tells us a lot as well. Finally, Scripture, especially the Bible, tells us a lot, most of all, in my opinion.

So for the next couple weeks we are going to delve deep. In the end, hopefully we have a balanced view of who exactly we are.  

Next week, we will look at the history of self-help and find in it an important response to what came before it. The following week, we will look at the notion of selflessness in religious tradition. The last week we will end with looking at “the middle-way.”