He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Protestant Intuition: Other Religions & Obvious Assumptions

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

One of the intuitions which those of us who were/are heirs of the Reformation have inherited from our Protestant forebears is that other religions are obviously wrong.  We inherited the intuition that Islam is obviously wrong, that Buddhism and various older Indian religious traditions are obviously wrong, that the religions of ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt are obviously wrong.

These religions are generally not what William James would call "live options" for the average American Christian who is formed in a culture shaped by Protestant assumptions.  And in much the same way, it's equally obvious that the Catholic Church is obviously wrong.  The only question to be answered is, "Why are they wrong?"  These background assumptions were just part of the environment I was initially raised.

I am not offended, even now that I'm a devout Catholic, when folks who come from that same environment assume that the Catholic Church is the wrong religion.  They typically know about as much about the Catholic Church as they do about Theravada Buddhism, which is to say, close to nothing and probably more misconceptions than anything.  The best they generally have is an oversimplification or two.

I've read a fair amount of Truth Magazine over the years, because it's the magazine of the Churches of Christ, the loosely affiliated set of congregations that much of my mother's side of the family belongs to.  The best article they have available on Buddhism is very much in the vein of oversimplifications, and of imposing a modern American way of understanding things upon ancient Buddhism.

For example, the Theravada tradition is described as the "conservative" group and the Mahayana tradition as the more "liberal" group.  That's sort of like calling Mussolini "conservative" and Hitler "liberal" in their views.  Sure, you could find a way to justify that somehow, but it's really not a good framework to use in order to understand the important differences between them.  In order to understand their differences, you need a deeper understanding of what they agreed on and how they understood their own views on political economy.

And that's the same way one would need to get a better understanding of Buddhism as well.  You would need a deeper understanding of the kernel of the Dharma in order to understand the flowering of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. 

I've written quite a bit about Buddhism and Catholicism, and I can say from experience that understanding both (and this is probably true for any religion) requires an ability to set aside the frameworks through which we typically evaluate everything we encounter and take on for a time the mindset of those who practice the religion seriously, who study it deeply, and who see the world through the lens of that religion's teachings.

For example, the average American Christian will struggle to understand why ancient Christians viewed Mary as the Queen of Heaven, because they have not yet taken on the mindset of those for whom the Davidic monarchy of Judaism or the many monarchies of Christendom were the normal way of relating to their societies.

Anyone steeped in the assumptions of an egalitarian, democratic society is going to have a hard time understanding the ancient perspective, which is that the human and angelic worlds were composed of a multiplicity of ranks and hierarchies.  Those egalitarian assumptions which seem obvious truths to us as normal American Christians would have seemed outlandish, perhaps even heretical, to early Christians who were awaiting the return of Christ the King and believed in the ranks of angelic beings and lived in societies rich with multi-layered hierarchies.

We American Christians won't be able to understand other religions, or even the history of our own religion, unless we relinquish some of our obvious assumptions long enough to appreciate the obvious assumptions of those Christians who came before us and the obvious assumptions of other religions that are held close to our neighbors' hearts.

Related: The Protestant Intuition: Divine Gifts & Human Works

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.