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Monday, March 28, 2005

Morality and Faith

recently discovered photo from the 1930s of the buddha bamiyan in Afghanistan before its destruction by the Taliban

This morning Atrios wondered why Pumpkinhead's Sunday morning interfaith squaredance was such a sausagefest. I wondered why there are never any Buddhist participants -- especially considering there are now more Buddhists in the US than Episcopalians. Well, I didn't really wonder exactly. As a practitioner of Zen for the past 16 years, I know it's difficult to get dragged into the conversation over faith and morality that Christians always want to have -- the very idea of such a discussion presumes a Judeo/Christian outlook, and a very dualistic western notion of faith.

Mumon over at Notes in Samsara has an interesting commentary on a NY Times article on the growth of MegaChurches, and I thought his comments coming from a Buddhist perspective were quite illuminating:
From the Times:

Expanding the flock through evangelism is a core principle of Christianity, but the modern church-growth movement traces its roots to Donald McGavran, a Christian missionary who worked in India during the first half of the 20th century. What McGavran discovered and articulated in his 1955 book, ''The Bridges of God,'' was that churches can't operate like mission stations, rigidly insisting upon their ways and inviting people to come to them on their terms. Rather, they had to go into villages and make followers of Christ. There was simply no other way to build a dynamic Christian community, which McGavran considered a prerequisite for reaching the unchurched.McGavran's words were written for overseas missionaries who would be encountering people who knew nothing about Jesus, but they resonated powerfully in America. As the 60's progressed, a new generation came of age, one that felt increasingly alienated from the churches in which they'd been raised. At the same time, more and more families were relocating from the cities to outlying areas. It was clear to church leaders that if they wanted to capture these new suburbanites (and a little later, exurbanites), they were going to have to go after them on their turf. The problem was that most pastors had been taught plenty of theology at seminary, but very little about how to actually build a church. So church leaders turned to McGavran for guidance. A nascent industry of church-growth experts adapted his model, encouraging pastors to engage their local communities by treating potential worshipers as consumers.

The modern master of church growth is Rick Warren. In the early 1980's, Warren, a fifth-generation Southern Baptist, applied McGavran's philosophies to his Orange County church, Saddleback. Warren's community was cut from a very different cultural cloth than his own family's; things like altar calls, a Southern Baptist staple in which worshipers are exhorted to come to the front of the church and accept Jesus, would never play in the wealthy suburbs of Southern California. Instead, Warren set about building a profile of ''Saddleback Sam''; once he had a sense of his average worshiper's likes (i.e. contemporary music) and dislikes (preachy, guilt-inducing sermons), he built Saddleback to accommodate him. A result was the so-called seeker-sensitive church.
There has been extensive adaptation of Buddhism for Americans, although many Americans wouldn't know it. Despite that, the main point of Buddhism, especially in its Zen form is still there: the emphasis on focusing inward, as opposed to drinking in and introjecting somebody else's message as your own.

Maybe it's my ex-New York Catholic upbringing, but so much of this "seeker sensitive megachurch" stuff just rings so phony to me; when you market to me you lose any authenticity about you.

We let true Dharma continue by being ourselves. If you want to know about Buddhism, I can tell you my experience with it, but if you don't want to know, it is better for me to focus on my practice rather than trying to fool you with slick advertising and marketing techniques to try to get you to practice something for which you don't see a need, though you suffer.
The idea of a group of people getting together and deciding as a result of a faith-based discussion what is right and wrong for everyone and for all time is completely antithetical to zen. If you want to have a secular discussion about what is good for the community, what works and what doesn't work, what is just and what isn't, I will happily participate -- indeed, I think it is the only productive discussion possible in a culture comprised of people of many differing faiths. But if you want to talk about the ultimate "morality" of abortion, or euthenasia, or stem cell research, or covering myself with daffodils and entering myself in the Macy's parade, and I respond by saying those things can only be decided by an individual based on their own personal experience at the time, I am not being an evasive liberal, or a permissive relativist -- that is the teaching that has come down to me. In a faith that has no God to look to for answers, one can only look inside one's self -- and what is right for you might not be right for me. Empirical morality is the realm of the mega-church.

Which is probably only one of many reasons why they're never going to ask anyone like Bernard Glassman or Pema Chodron to discuss the matter on Pumpkinhead's show. But I think as a matter of daily practice that either of them sets more of a living example of what "right action" looks like than Jerry Falwell could ever hope to. I mean, I'm trying not to be condescending here, I suppose he provides a great deal of comfort to many people. You'll have to forgive me if I just can't look at the guy and think he represents the face of God for anyone. And if you want me to have a conversation with him over faith and morality -- I'm sorry, at this point in my spiritual evolution I just don't think that's possible.