Ask Dr. Cobb

September 2001 Question

If Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, who is Gautama Buddha?

Dr. Cobb's Response

For a long time Christians viewed religious traditions as inherently competitive. This was true of alternative forms of Christianity. If Catholics were right, Protestants were wrong. If the magisterial Reformers were right, the Baptists and Quakers were wrong. If Calvinists were right, Lutherans were wrong. If the high Calvinists were right, the Arminians were wrong. And so forth.

It took a long time for the denominational attitude to replace this mutual exclusivism. Now most of us take for granted that none of us have the exact and perfect form of Christianity but that all of us have some contribution to make. What divides us is not as important as what unites us as believers in Jesus Christ. Institutional unity and theological agreement may not be possible, or even desirable, but in some way we do want to express the unity of our faith before the world.

When we confront Buddhists, some adopt the older exclusivist attitude. If Christians are right, then Buddhists are wrong. Other Christians extend to Buddhists the denominational attitude, believing that they constitute another form of the same basic faith and commitment. Sometimes it is proposed that there are many paths up the same mountain. We follow Jesus up the mountain. Buddhists follow Gautama.

From a process perspective, this image is not very helpful. We should allow others to define their purposes and goals instead of assuming they are the same as ours. This can be a problem even in the Christian ecumenical context, but there we are dealing with other communities that do affirm with us that Jesus is Lord and Savior. This provides a very important agreement and commonality. Buddhists not only fail to share this commitment. They do not seek "salvation" as Christians define it. Instead, their goal is enlightenment. Sometimes they, too, affirm that there are many paths up the same mountain, but they understand the top of the mountain to be the kind of enlightenment attained by Gautama.

It is possible to argue, of course, that at some deep level what Buddhists mean by enlightenment and what Christians mean, or should mean, by salvation is the same. Some Christians are so impressed by Buddhism that they redefine salvation to conform to Buddhist ideas of enlightenment. But this is a high price to pay for mutual appreciation!

It seems much more honest to acknowledge real differences. Christian salvation and Buddhist enlightenment are not the same. Christian teaching guides us better in thinking about salvation. Buddhist teaching guides us better in thinking about enlightenment. They need not be contradictory or even competitive. It seems that to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior need not deter us from following Gautama as guide to enlightenment.

This possibility of adopting multiple religious traditions has been widely recognized and adopted in the East. Indeed, it has been all too easily accepted there, at least from a process perspective. The multiple religious traditions are simply allowed to lie there with little or no mutual criticism or interaction. From a Whiteheadian point of view this misses the opportunity to turn differences into contrasts.

To take just one example, Christians have emphasized the responsible self. We have stressed the importance of free decisions made in conformity with the purposes of God. Buddhists, on the other hand, have taught a doctrine of "no-self" that seems, on the surface at least, to undermine the responsible self.

Trying to understand the Buddhist "no-self", Christians often point to our teachings of "selflessness". But this goes only part of the way. Selflessness is understood in the context of an ethic of love, where one serves the other without thought of the self. It does not really mean that there is no self to think about. The Buddhist doctrine is ontological; the Christian, ethical.

Process thought can understand the Buddhist teaching much better. The Buddhists mean that there is no substantial self. The self is a construct, not a given. They teach that when we recognize this and cease constructing a self, we are open to reality as it truly is. Process theologians agree that there is no substantial self. Hence, on the ontological side, we affirm the Buddhist doctrine. We see no loss to Christian faith in rejecting substantialist thinking. But we see a value in the construction of the responsible self with all its complex consequences in Christian experience.

To say that there is a value in constructing the responsible self in no way denies that there is a value in the realization of "no-self". These are different values. The two religious traditions are structured around this difference. The question is whether they can be enriched by one another or must simply lie side-by-side, unaffected by one another.

Approaching matters from a process perspective, I hope that the two traditions can contribute to one another, enriching both. I call this "mutual transformation". On the Christian side much has already happened. Millennia ago Christians made a place for Neoplatonic mysticism within Christianity, even though there is little or no such mysticism in the Bible. Although Buddhist enlightenment is different from Neoplatonic mystical experience, I am confident that it can also be assimilated into Christian life. In the process Christians will learn much and will transform other aspects of our tradition.

We must recognize, however, that to practice Buddhist meditation as a Christian does not accord enlightenment the ultimacy ascribed to it in Buddhist tradition. Even there it is often affirmed that the enlightened one out of compassion shares the fruit of enlightenment with others. For Christians, the value of any spiritual discipline will finally be judged by its contribution to the divine commonwealth, that is, the world in which God’s purposes are fulfilled. Because I believe that Buddhist meditation can contribute, I affirm it. But its attainment in itself cannot be the end of life.

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