Category Archives: Comparative Religion

Cosmic Laughter

In 1494, just before the onslaught of the Reformation, Sebastian Brandt, a conservative Roman Catholic scholar living in Basel, looked at the reeking vice and folly of the church of his day and wrote Das Narrenschiff, a Ship of Fools. As the prologue tells us, “One vessel would be far too small / To carry all the fools I know.” Brandt’s veritable floating tub of dolts and sinners heads for an unknown destination, a land of Fools, and functions as a harbinger of an imminent schism. Eulogized as divina satira, divine satire, Ship of Fools catapulted Brandt into the ranks of Dante, at least among the Germans. (Lindvall 2015, 1)

— Terry Lindvall (2015, 1) God Mocks. NYU Press.

If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.

Yiddish Proverb. Cited in Lindvall (2015, 3) God Mocks.

The Jesus movement very early on exchanged the vision for the visionary. Those first enthusiastic followers were enthralled by the world Jesus encapsulated in the parables and aphorisms, but, since they were unable to hold on to the vision embodied in those verbal vehicles, they turned from the story to the storyteller. They didn’t know how else to celebrate the revelation. They turned the iconoclast into an icon. (Funk 1996: 10-11)

(….) The quest for the historical Jesus is an effort to emancipate the Galilean sage from the tangle of Christian overlay that obscures, to some extent, who Jesus was and what he said, to distinguish the religion of Jesus from the religion about Jesus. That quest has been under way since the eighteenth century, when the first critical scholars asserted their independence from ecclesiastical control. It has continued unabated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Funk 1996: 31)

(….) Jesus was a comic savant. He mixed humor with subversive and troubling knowledge born of direct insight. That was also the technique of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, who might also be described as comic savants. A comic savant is an intellectualbetter, poetwho is redefining what it means to be wise. That is the real role of the court jester: tell the king the truth but tell it as a joke. Jesters consequently enjoyed a limited immunity for their jokes. New truth is easier to embrace if it comes wrapped in humor. (Funk 1996: 158)

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When someone slaps you on the right cheek,
turn the other as well.

If someone sues you for your coat,
Give him the shirt off your back to go with it.

When anyone conscripts you for one mile,
go along for two.

These admonitions give the appearance of being a series of particular cases that call for corresponding legal precedents. But, in fact, they parody case law and legal reasoning.

A blow to the right cheek would require a left-handed slap, which would be intended not to injure but to humiliate. The left hand was not used publicly in Jesus’ society, since it was used for unclean tasks. At Qumran to gesture with the left hand was punishable by ten days of penance. So a backhand slap to the right cheek was an insult delivered from a superior to an inferior, as Walter Wink has so brilliantly shown: master to slave, husband to wife, parent to child, Roman to Jew. Its message: Get back in your place. Don’t put on airs.

To turn the other cheek under the circumstances was an act of defiance. The left cheek invited a right-hand blow that might injure. The master, husband, or parent, or Roman would hesitate. The humiliation of the initial blow was answered with a nonviolent, very subtle, but quite effective challenge. The act of defiance entailed risk; it was symbolic, to be sure, but for that reason appealed to those who were regarded as subservient inferiors in Jesus’ world.

A coat was often given as surety for a loan or debt. The poor could lose their coats under such circumstances, but only during the daylight hours; at night, according to Deuteronimic law, the coat had to be returned since the truly destitute might have nothing else for warmth. Jesus’ injunction was to give up both coat and shirt. In a two-garment society, that meant going naked. Nakedness was frowned upon, to say the least. Again, according to the Manual of Discipline, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally exposing one’s nakedness when taking one’s hand out of one’s robe called for thirty days of penance. Exposing oneself to a companion needlessly drew a penalty of six months. Jesus combined humor with a call for a serious infraction of the social code.

Roman soldiers were allowed to commandeer Judeans for a mile’s march to assist with gear. More than that was forbidden. To comply with a conscriptive order meant subservience; to refuse meant rebellion. Imagine the consternation of the Roman soldier when confronted with a Judean offer to carry the pack a second mile.

These examples all refer to real problems, real circumstances. The responses, however, are not prescriptive; they are suggestive of a behavior that undermines the intent of the initial act.

Casting Off Body-Mind

The Understanding of One’s Personality

Unlike a thing, that is usually regarded as existence that is a means, a person is regarded as existence with the self as its own end. This is especially clear in Kantian ethics, which has given a philosophical foundation to the modern notions of personality, freedom, and responsibility. Kant distinguishes things and human personality, and insists that while things can only have value as existence that is a means, human personality has dignity and grace as existence with self-purpose. Although a human being can be used as a means, at the same time he or she must always be treated as an end. In the Kantian framework, this superiority of people over things, and end over means, should not be overcome. Thus Kant talks about the “Kingdom of ends” as the community of personality. Viewed in the light of Dōgen, this Kantian notion of personality not only is limited by anthropocentrism but also is not completely free from reification of the human self. In Dōgen, people are not essentially distinguished from other beings, but are grasped as a part of the realm of beings. People and other beings are equally subject to impermanence, or transiency. Although only people who have self-consciousness can realize the impermanency common to all beings as impermanency, they can overcome the problem of life and death only when they can overcome the transiency common to all beings. In Dōgen both suffering and emancipation from it are grasped on this transanthropocentric dimension. Hence Dōgen’s emphasis on the simultaneous attainment of Buddha-nature for self and others, and for humans and nature. In this simultaneous attainment, each person becomes an occasion or means for the others’ attainment just as each person realizes his or her own attainment. Here self-awakening and others’ awakening take place at the same time. While maintaining one’s individuality in terms of self-awakening, one serves as the means for the awakening of others. This dynamic mutuality takes place not only between the self and others, but also between humans and nature. This is the reason Dōgen emphasizes, in the “Bendōwa” fascicle, that

trees and grasses, wall and fence, expound and exalt the Dharma for the sake of ordinary people, sages, and all living beings. Ordinary people, sages, and all living beings in turn preach and exalt the Dharma for the sake of trees, grasses, wall, and fence. The dimension of self-enlightenment-qua-enlightening-others basically is fully replete with the characteristics of realization, and causes the principle of realization to function unceasingly.20

This mutual help for enlightenment between humans and nature, however, cannot take place insofar as humans take only themselves as the end. As Dōgen maintains:

To practice and confirm all things by conveying one’s self to them, is illusion; for all things to advance forward and practice and confirm the self, is enlightenment.21 (Abe 1992, 32)

The self must be emptied, for all things to advance and confirm the self. Accordingly, “to forget one’s self” is crucial. To forget one’s self is nothing other than body-mind casting off. And when body-mind are cast off, the world and history are also cast off. If body-mind are cast off without the world and history being cast off, it is not an authentic “body-mind casting off.” Further, “body-mind casting off” is not something negative. It is immediately the cast-off body-mind, that is, the awakened body-mind that is freed from self-attachment and ready to save others. In the same way, the casting off of the world and history, which takes place at the same time as the casting off of body-mind, is not something negative. It is directly the cast-off world and history, that is, the awakened world and awakened history, that “advance forward and practice and confirm the self.” (Abe 1992, 33)

Such are the implications of the notion of the oneness of means and end when the notion is applied to the understanding of one’s personality and its relationship to other persons and other things. Here we can see Dōgen’s challenge to the contemporary issues of ecology and history. The crucial point of this dynamic mutuality between the self and others, and humans and the world, is to forget one’s self, and one’s body-mind are cast off, is self-awakening-qua-awakening-others fully realized. This is not the “Kingdom of ends,” but the “Kingdom of dependent origination.” (Abe 1992, 33)

20 Shōbōgenzō “Bendōwa” The Eastern Buddhist, 136.
21 Shōbōgenzō “Bendōwa” The Eastern Buddhist, 133.

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Scandal of Evangelical Mind

Although the thought has occurred to me regularly over the past two decades that, at least in the United States, it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual. (Noll 1995, ix)

(….) The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and an unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities. Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking and they have not been so for several generations. (Noll 1995, 3)

Despite dynamic success at a popular level, modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life. They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of “high” culture. Even in its more progressive and culturally upscale subgroups, evangelicalism has little intellectual muscle. Feeding the hungry, living simply, and banning the bomb are tasks at which different sorts of evangelicals willingly expend great energy, but these tasks do not by themselves assist intellectual vitality. (Noll 1994: 3)

(….) Evangelical inattention to intellectual life is a curiosity for several reasons…. The historical situation is similarly curious. Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions … either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor…. None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelicals. Unlike their spiritual ancestors, modern evangelicals have not pursued comprehensive thinking under God or sought a mind shaped to its furthest reaches by Christian perspectives. (Noll 1994: 4)

(….) As the Canadian scholar N. K. Clifford once aptly summarized the matter: “The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. The limitations of such a mind-set were less apparent in the relative simplicity of a rural frontier society.” (Noll 1994: 12-13)

For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory may be, in fact, sinful. Os Guinness has recently called attention to this dimension in a memorable passage worth quoting at length:

Evangelicals have been deeply sinful in being anti-intellectual ever since the 1820s and 1830s. For the longest time we didn’t pay the cultural price for that because we had the numbers, the social zeal, and the spiritual passion for the gospel. But today we are beginning to pay the cultural price. And you can see that most evangelicals simply don’t think. For example, there has been no serious evangelical public philosophy in this country…. It has always been a sin not to love God the Lord our God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls…. We have excused this with a degree of pietism and pretend that this is something other than what it is that is, sin…. Evangelicals need to repent of their refusal to think Christianly and to develop the mind of Christ. (….) The scandal of the evangelical mind is a scandal from whichever direction it is viewed. It is a scandal arising from the historical experience of an entire subculture. It is a scandal to which the shape of evangelical institutions have contributed. Most of all, it is a scandal because it scorns the good gifts of a loving God. (Noll 1994: 23)

(….) The career of Jonathan Edwards the greatest evangelical mind in American history and one of the truly seminal thinkers in Christian history of the last few centuries supports this argument, for despite his own remarkable efforts as an evangelical thinker, Edwards had no intellectual successors…. Fundamentalism, … Pentecostalism, …. [was] a disaster for the life of the mind. (Noll 1994: 24)

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Even in best-case scenario, evangelicalism, of all the religious traditions in America, observed Wolfe, “ranks dead last in intellectual stature.” Or as Noll had put it earlier, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” The fundamentalist end of the evangelical spectrum contains a culture that does indeed seem unable to distinguish between meaningful scholarship and … “gibberish.” Ken Ham places a dinosaur looking over Eve’s shoulder in the Garden of Eden exhibit at his museum. Tourists pay to look at it and leave the Creation Museum believing that what they just saw is both scientific and biblical. Tim LaHaye inserts the emergence of a common European currency into the book of Revelation; David Barton converts Ben Franklin into a Bible-believing Christian; James Dobson claims that the institution of marriage has not changed for five thousand years. Absent a more vigorous intellectual mind, such ideas take root and flourish. And their spokespersons can function as authority figures. (Randall and Giberson 2011: 243)

A 2010 study revealed provocative—and disturbing—connections between religiosity and racism. The study sought to uncover subtle connections that operate subconsciously. Few Christians—or people in general—will admit to being racist, of course, and many take offense at the suggestion of any link between their faith and racism. But researchers have found that when white evangelical college students were “religiously primed” by focusing on issues of faith, “their covert racism did increase” and they “were more likely to agree that they dislike blacks.” The researchers inferred that “religious thoughts seem to trigger racist thoughts.” Their explanation was based entirely on group identity: “religion tends to increase benevolence toward co-religionists, but can increase hostility toward outsiders.”

A 1999 study of college students in Canada, generally considered a bastion of tolerance, found that “prejudice against religious out-group members is pervasive.” The findings also suggested that “fundamentalism is particularly predictive of out-group derogation.” As of this writing, widespread demonization of Muslims is being used to promote solidarity among conservative white Americans. Such tactics are overtly political, but they are enhanced because religious identity is so powerful. (Randall and Giberson 2011, 253-254)