Thursday, July 11, 2019

Christian Buddhism II

Atheist warning: this is a religious post.

I'm focusing on religion at the moment since I feel that the main driver of Western decline is the collapse of it, and I think that G.K. Chesterton had some good insights which help explain the phenomenon.

A few weeks ago Rod Dreher put up a post on his blog which got me thinking about Christian Buddhism. Dreher featured a prayer which some of the victims of Communism used to pray in order to help them through their ordeals.  I find it very hard to criticise the opinions of men who had suffered so much at the hands of such a vile evil and I suppose that every prayer has its worth, but the  Litany of Humility left me with a profound sense of unease. Most of the other commentators on the post did not see much wrong with it and thought of it approvingly.

Reading up on the origin of the prayer, the first thing to note is that the prayer seems composed in the late 19th Century, so, as far a prayers go, it is relatively modern. Secondly, I also appears that there are variations of the prayer circulating about. Thirdly, it is attributed to Cardinal Merry Del Val, who by all accounts is regarded as theologically solid, so this isn't a product of some ideological radical.

Therein lays the problem.

While the prayer 's intention is for humility, it's actual content borders quite literally on the masochistic. As I see it, not only does the prayer invoke God to rid ourselves of our vices but it also seems to ask God to rid us of our virtues as well. This bit, from the version over at Dreher's blog, really struck me:
From the desire that people close to me and whom I love may not be humiliated, that they may suffer less than others, or that they may be given priority over others, Deliver Me Jesus.
I'm no theological rocket scientist but there some seriously disturbing theology here: I mean what kind of vice is it to want the best for your loved ones? Or what kind of virtue is it not to wish good to them? If you break this down a bit more, what the petitioner is praying for is the obliteration of any goodwill or sense of justice towards his loved ones in  an effort to improve their own holiness. I've just pulled out one line from the prayer but the rest of it is in the same vein.

The prayer's concept of Humility and therefore holiness is seen as being achieved when man rids himself of all the desires a normal man would have. Now there is another religion out there that has that same view and it isn't Christianity.   Chesterton recognised this as well and realised that it also produced an impotence; an impotence we see about us:
But some at least of the disciples of the great Gautama [ED: Buddhists] interpret his ideal, so far as I can understand them, as one of absolute liberation from all desire or effort or anything that human beings commonly call hope. In that sense, the philosophy would only mean the abandonment of arms because it would mean the abandonment of almost everything. It would not discourage war any more than it would discourage work. It would not discourage work any more than it would discourage pleasure. It would certainly tell the warrior that disappointment awaited him when he became the conqueror, and that his war was not worth winning. But it would also presumably tell the lover that his love was not worth winning; and that the rose would wither like the laurel.
Illustrated London News, March 2, 1929.
Chesterton recognised that there was a deep fundamental difference between Christianity and Buddhism which was at the very core of their conception of the themselves.  The shorthand version of it is that Christianity believed in happiness with a personality; man was only truly happy when he was himself while Buddhism thought that he could only be happy when he wasn't. However at a more deeper level Chesterton recognised that Buddhism and  Manicheanism were very similar  with their  hatred of physical creation:
One of these obvious, these too obvious explanations is that everything is a dream and a delusion and there is nothing outside the ego. Another is that all things recur; another, which is said to be Buddhist and is certainly Oriental, is the idea that what is the matter with us is our creation, in the sense of our colored differentiation and personality, and that nothing will be well till we are again melted into one unity. By this theory, in short, the Creation was the Fall. It is important historically because it was stored up in the dark heart of Asia and went forth at various times in various forms over the dim borders of Europe. Here we can place the mysterious figure of Manes or Manichaeus, the mystic of inversion, whom we should call a pessimist, parent of many sects and heresies......
Now while the Christian creeds have always explicitly affirmed the goodness of creation the Church's institutional "temperament" has often honored it in the breach:
Anyhow, it is historically important to see that Platonic love did somewhat distort both human and divine love, in the theory of the early theologians. Many medieval men, who would indignantly deny the Albigensian doctrine of sterility, were yet in an emotional mood to abandon the body in despair; and some of them to abandon everything in despair.
...... A thousand enthusiasts for celibacy, in the day of the great rush to the desert or the cloister, might have called marriage a sin, if they had only considered their individual ideals, in the modern manner, and their own immediate feelings about marriage. Fortunately, they had to accept the Authority of the Church, which had definitely said that marriage was not a sin. A modern emotional religion might at any moment have turned Catholicism into Manichaeism{ED] But when Religion would have maddened men, Theology kept them sane.
The key insight here is that there is/was a tension between the temperament of the Church and the Creed; between what the Church said and what it felt. There is also a recognition that though many clerics may have affirmed the creed they acted in a way practically disowned it. This is a subtle but important point which is frequently missed.  What this means that in the "day to day" operation of Church the goodness of creation must constantly be affirmed against a tendency which wishes to oppose it:
In short, a real knowledge  of mankind will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing; that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often quite as much needed to restrain it as it as to impose it. Asceticism, or war with the appetites, is itself an appetite. It can never be eliminated from the strange ambitions of man. But it can be kept in some reasonable control; and it is indulged in much saner proportion under Catholic authority than in Pagan or Puritan.
The other point that I'm trying to get across here is that what separates Christian Asceticism form  Buddhism is a conscious theological affirmation of the goodness of creation; otherwise they're very much alike in practice.  But this theological affirmation is rooted in the intellect, not the temperament and therefore, when Christianity is running on "autopilot" it's liable to lapse into the Christian Buddhist variant. The curious thing about this, though, is that it will be the intensely "spiritual" that are liable to fall into this error instead of the libertines, as their temperament pushes towards this direction naturally.

However, given the ascetic tendencies in Christianity, the real danger lays in the fact that those who push for more fasting, prayer, self denial will be seen as more "holy" than those who are "slack"; heresy becomes cloaked in a veneer of holiness and becomes incredibly difficult to spot and assumes the mantle of a more purer "orthodoxy." A lot of people pushing for a renewal of Christianity through a deeper spirituality are cut of this cloth and it's very difficult to fight them due to this inbuilt Christian bias.

The essential idea of Christian Buddhism is union with Christ through the negation of self, and as Chesterton rightly recognised this notion manifests itself in the obliteration of individual differentiation and personality.  There is no such thing as legitimate self-assertion in this schema as any assertion of the self is seen as an impediment towards holiness. The man who asserts that he should be treated like a doormat is holier than the man who asserts that he shouldn't. Hence the Prayer of Humility which is seen as standard orthodoxy.

How this manifests in the real world is that Christianity comes down hard on legitimate self-assertion. Hence the demand for justice is seen as selfish, as is demand to fight for one's rights,  as is the demand to preserve one's identity.  The Church's "open borders" theology has an "orthodox" pedigree which extends well into the past, beyond the actions of the current Pope. Somewhere in the 19th C, something went wrong and the Buddhists have slowly taken charge. And they have done it under the mantle of orthodoxy.

It's like Arian times again.


Vince S said...

And thus an important fundamental part of Christianity has been completely overlooked.

Yes, indeed, it calls for putting away the "old man", but only so that a "new man" may arise in his place. The "new man", far from being a denial of self, is in fact a much more authentic self than the "old man". It is quite facile to confound a denial of selfish, hurtful desires with the denial of self itself.

And the "new man" is therefore not a mere puppet, whose highest aim must be endurance of evil and submission to authority. He is still a man, with the prerogative to do and achieve good on his own initiative.

The Social Pathologist said...


It is quite facile to confound a denial of selfish, hurtful desires with the denial of self itself.

It's one thing to regulate desire, it's altogether a different one to eliminate it.

Chesterton saw through this line of reasoning, reckoning if you eliminate desire you eliminate the self as well. It's Buddhism 101 and unfortunately it has been preached as "orthodoxy" within the Church.

As for regulation of desire, here we also have to be careful. One needs to regulate desire properly and hence a degree of prudence is required. Regulate too hard and you have effectively killed it; a sort of "second degree" Manichaenism.

Roland said...

Is this an example?

"To be truly detached is to be indifferent to whether you have or have not. Authentic detachment orients a person exclusively to God’s will and his own role and responsibilities in carrying it out. In this sense, the detached person would be equally happy to have no possessions—if they are unnecessary to his vocational state—or to have many possessions if they are useful in the service of God and neighbor."

The Social Pathologist said...

@ Roland.

I reckon it's pretty close.

A Christian is very happy to have possessions and sees them as a good but will ditch if some greater good is necessary. It's one thing to say possessions don't matter it's another to say your happy to trade them for better things.