Christianity, Islam & Buddhism (or, Two Conversations)

I had two conversations yesterday with two different people. While on the surface they seem to be entirely different conversations concerning different matters, on reflection I see that they are two aspects of the same discourse. They both involved the question of how Christianity (and individual Christians) ought to be relating to other religious traditions (and the practitioners of those traditions). Here’s what happened:

First, someone forwarded to my wife an alarmist video about projected changes in religious demographics in Europe and North America over the next fifty years, as the birth rate declines among caucasians, while rising immigration and a vigorous birth rate of immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, means — according to the people who produced the video — that the native Christian population will soon be overwhelmed by a nascent immigrant Muslim population. By interspersing through this video quotations from figures like Muammar al-Gaddafi who is alleged to have said “There are signs that Allah will grant victory to Islam in Europe without swords, without guns, without conquest,” the video’s message is clear: Christians need to start birthing babies — and evangelizing Muslims — or else we all better start learning Arabic.

This video never identifies its producers, but it was uploaded to Youtube by a user named “friendofmuslim” who is identified by the Islam in Europe blog as a “Christian evangelist.” No big surprise there. This blogger goes on to challenge much of the content of the video, and I suppose I could have fun trying to deconstruct the question of just how soon Europe will transition from being a secular/post-Christian continent to becoming a Muslim continent. But it’s all speculation. It could happen in 40 years (as the video predicts), 100 years, or never. But that’s not the point I wish to make.

In the ensuing conversation that my wife and I had after watching the video, I pointed out that demographics are always changing, and the more interesting question, to me, concerns not this kind of power politics where Christians have to contain a non-Christian threat, but rather the larger question of what will happen as Christian and non-Christian cultures continue to interface?

Which leads to the second conversation I had yesterday, with one of the monks in Conyers. He shares my interest in interreligious and interfaith dialogue, and I was telling him about a book I recently purchased: Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity by B. Alan Wallace. I haven’t read any of Wallace’s previous books, but his body of work looks interesting enough: a former Buddhist monk who now heads the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, most of Wallace’s work concerns the interface of Buddhist contemplative practices with the science of human consciousness; and now he’s invited the Christian tradition to join in on the conversation as well.

The monk and I talked about how important we felt the Buddhist-Christian conversation is, particularly to contemplative spirituality. We talked about how many of the most important contemplatives of the past century, including Thomas Merton, Raimon Panikkar, Bede Griffiths, and William Johnston, were (or are) engaged in some form of interfaith work between Christianity and eastern religious practice. Finally, I said, “You know, I think I have more in common with a contemplative Buddhist than with a fundamentalist Christian,” and he agreed.

Here we have the challenge of the postmodern world. Phyllis Tickle says that the key issue facing emergence Christianity is the question of authority. But I think identity is just as critical a concern. Christians who oppose interfaith dialog, or who insist that our only interaction with non-Christians must be to convert them, are precisely those who have a high level of anxiety over what it means to be a Christian: to have a Christian identity. Now, I am all for having a Christian identity, just as I think it is important to have a clear sense of where our authority is situated. But just as all the old paradigms of authority seem to be shifting under our feet, so too I think “Christian identity” is totally up for grabs. If the emergence of a Muslim majority in Europe would mean the death of contemplative Christianity, I would grieve. But if it just means a new chapter in the endless drama of clashing fundamentalisms, I can’t get too worried about it, except to fear the violence that must inevitably accompany such conflict. Meanwhile, the thought of mystical cross-fertilization between contemplative Muslims (such as the Sufis) and contemplative Christians is a question I find fascinating. Perhaps in another few years meditation practitioners like B. Alan Wallace will be inviting the most visionary of Muslim thinkers to join in the conversation that is already occurring between scientists, Buddhists and Christians.

Don’t dismiss me here. We have to get over the media stereotype of Islam as the religion of suicide bombers. Yes, that element exists, just as there are Christians out there who murder abortion providers. Islam has a long history of its own intellectual distinction (remember, it was the Muslims who, like the Irish, kept classical philosophy alive while Europe sank into the dark ages). When we think in terms of Christian-Muslim dialogue, it is vital that we think in terms of creative and fruitful exchange between the greatest minds and most loving practitioners of each faith. It needs to be a conversation between the saints and the mystics and the genuises of both communities. If we allow the tribal-minded masses (of either religion) to shape the conversation, it will devolve from a conversation into a quarrel, from a quarrel to a fight, and from a fight into a war. This is something no one needs.

Fifty years from now, Europe may be demographically Muslim and Africa may be the center of the Christian world. But North America, I suspect, will remain a roiling mass of secularism which plays host to a variety of religious identities, from fundamentalisms of all stripes to truly visionary contemplative explorers of human consciousness. Frankly, it will be among those contemplative explorers, regardless of where they happen to worship, that the most enlightening discourse will occur. If I’m still around (If I’m alive in 2059, I’ll celebrate my 99th birthday), I hope to be part of what promises to be a fascinating conversation (or two).

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Martha

    I too received the video/email you discuss in your post and my reaction was as an alarmist. As a parent, I find myself more worried about future possibilities as this may define my children’s future. I am currently reading Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh. Chapter 7, For a Future to be Possible, he writes: “There is a deep malaise in society. There is a kind of vacuum inside us….We absorb so much violence and insecurity every day that we are like time bombs ready to explode. Many of our young people are uprooted. They no longer believe in the traditions of their parents…and they have not found anything else to replace them. Spiritual leaders need to address this very real issue, but most simply do not know what to do. They have not been able to transmit the deepest values of their traditions, perhaps because they themselves have not fully understood or experienced them. When a priest does not embody the living values of a tradition, he or she can not transmit them to the next generation. He can only wear the outer garments and pass along the superficial forms. When the living values are absent, rituals and dogmas are lifeless, rigid, and even oppressive. Combined with a lack of understanding of people’s real needs and a general lack of tolerance, it is little wonder that the young feel alienated within these institutions. Buddhism, like Christianity and other traditions, has to renew itself in order to respond to the needs of the people of our time. (Young people)…feel uneasy with their church, their society, their culture, and their family. They don’t see anything worthwhile, beautiful, or true. We need roots to be able to stand straight and grow strong. ….We must encourage others, especially young people, to go back to their traditions and rediscover the jewels that are there. Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions, and this will benefit everyone.”

  • Leslie

    Oh, well said Carl. This is one of the reasons I (and many others) am leaning way out (toppling out?) of the fundamentalist evangelical world view. While the foundation remains – we are saved through Christ and Him crucified – the means by which this redeemed life is lived is a narrow box that does not fit with the rest of my observations and experiences of God’s whole world. What I’ve learned from Jesus is that there IS NO box! And, I’m going to spend my life learning to understand just what that means, for myself and for all creation.

  • Joe Rawls

    I have long thought that a trialogue between Christian contemplatives, Sufis, and kabbalists would be most stimulating. Call it “Children of Abraham Uncaged” or some such.

  • Eldritch

    That video’s just xenophobic paranoia; don’t get me wrong I’m not pro-islam, but the only reason why there are so many muslims is because of birth rates, once muslims have the freedom to convert they typically do so in droves. The idea that muslim immigration will turn Europe into Arabia 2.0 is as stupid as claiming that mexican immigrants will ‘take back’ california.

    “We have to get over the media stereotype of Islam as the religion of suicide bombers. Yes, that element exists, just as there are Christians out there who murder abortion providers.”

    Except that Christian terrorism is dwarfed by the level of Islamic terrorism (which is why proponents of islam have had to falsely claim that McVeigh was a Christian when was really an atheist) comparing islamic terrorism to abortion clinic bombing is like comparing a small street gang to a world wide crime syndicate. Of course terrorism is only the tip of ice berg, there’s also the matter of the oppression of non-muslims (ie Coptic Christians).

    “Islam has a long history of its own intellectual distinction”

    Not really, the main reason for the ‘golden age’ is because they had no shortage of wealth from conquests (which obviously has more to do armies than cultural superiority) and the ‘golden age’ has been greatly exagerrated; for example proponents often attribute Hindu achievements to muslims. Plus a most muslim intellectuals were considered heretics, al-Razi for example was denounced as a blasphemer since his beliefs were contrary to traditional islam. Not to mention the actual ‘achievements’ weren’t very dramatic (which was Obama had to lie about muslim achievements in his speech) and easily dwarfed by European and Asian achievements.

    “remember, it was the Muslims who, like the Irish, kept classical philosophy alive while Europe sank into the dark ages.”

    That was mainly because Europe’s access to classical philosophy was cut off thanks to the muslim slave ships that dominated the seas at the time and like I posted before the reason for the wealth was because of conquests. Also there were European cultures that were far more egalitarian and democratic, the Norse for example or the Basques. And when the Arabs southern Italy and Spain they found not a bunch of primitive savages, but a highly sophisticated Latin civilization, a civilization rich in cities, agriculture, art and literature, and presided over by completely Romanized Gothic kings. So the idea that Europe was savage and the islamic world was sophisticated is a complete myth.

  • Eldritch

    Also this article is worth reading:

    “As early as the 1920s Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne located the proverbial smoking gun. But it was not in the hands of the Goths or Vandals, or the Christian Church: it was in the hands of those people whom it had, even then, become fashionable to credit with saving Western Civilization: the Arabs.”

  • prickliestpear

    Another very good book I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in the intersection between Buddhism and Christianity is Paul Knitter’s provocatively titled Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.

  • Strácálaí

    The six zillion pound gorilla in the room for every interfaith conversation is Power, and it is the privilege of the Christian speaker — and only the Christian speaker — to ignore or overlook or trivialize it. Such is the prerogative of those who possess Power. This, I think, needs to become an axiomatic consideration in order for us to hear each other.

    Simply put, we have the power as Americans to construct the conversation as best it suits us. Thus, we can construct Islam as our threat, and Buddhism as our poodle. We can reduce Islam to a political claim, and Buddhism to a set of breath-control techniques. We can annex Islam to Bin Laden and Buddhism to John Lennon. Simple.

    And here’s the rub: In each case there is a risk of desacralizing the Christian vision as surely and completely as the messages of these other faiths have been desacralized. Thus the self-evident absence within Islam (as we choose to [mis]understand it) of any spiritual or religious lessons for Christian confessions is functionally the double of the impotence of Buddhism (as we choose to [mis]understand it) to serve as much more than a repository of anodyne simplicities to cherry-pick at will. By implication, Christianity (as we choose to [mis]understand it) is left pretty toothless. Rather than a commitment that should devastate all our facile worldly self-assurance, Christianity becomes something that we shape to the contours of what we already are. Do we need our religious identity to justify our prejudices and swing our electorate? Thank you, Islam, for playing the political Other. Do we need to pretend to have advanced in the way of Christ with an uncommon precocity that nevertheless leaves our portfolios intact? Thank you, Buddhism, for giving us breath-counting in place of the 40-day fast in the desert.

    For us to be rigorous in our commitments as Christians, the challenges posed by these other traditions should serve to indict us personally rather than to exculpate us corporately. There is no other way past Power. That is to say, a resurgent Islam should not swell our conceit around the wondrous freedoms of our “Christian” nation — it ought in the first instance ask us how we have failed to provide a model of human perfection that a Muslim might wish to emulate. And likewise, an Alan Wattsian Buddhism should not leave us to conclude that a few tweaks of technique is all our prayer life demands — it ought instead to incite us to still the soul the better to hear God’s Word.

    Failing this, we can hardly be taking the threat of Christianity to our mundane comforts very seriously — very sacredly — can we?

  • Martha

    I believe our “Christian” face on a global level is weak as we have conservative Catholics, liberal Catholics, and over 38,000 different protestant Christian churches….as a unified front we are splintered and weak. How can we have power as Christian Americans if we can’t decide what Christianity is…as “Christians” we can’t even decide if abortion is wrong. We don’t even use the same bible….therefore theological basics are different. What example are we setting? Where is the power?

  • Eldritch

    More on the golden age myth:

    “Muslims claim many, many accomplishments we know they had nothing to do with. Arabic numerals? From India . The concept of zero? From Babylonia . Parabolic arches? From Assyria . The much ballyhooed claim of translating the Greek corpus of knowledge into Arabic? It was the Christian Assyrians, who first translated to Syriac, then to Arabic. The first University? Not Al-Azhar in Cairo (988 A.D.), but the School of Nisibis of the Church of the East (350 A.D.), which had three departments: Theology, Philosophy and Medicine. Al-Azhar only teaches Theology.

    Speaking of medicine, Muslims will claim that medicine during the Golden Age of Islam, the Abbasid period, was the most advanced in the world. That is correct. But what they don’t say is that the medical practitioners were exclusively Christians. The most famous medical family, the Bakhtishu family, Assyrians of the Church of the East, produced seven generations of doctors, who were the official physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad for nearly 200 years.”

    “Most of the scientists, poets and philosophers in Islam’s golden age (the time of the Abassid Caliphate) were Jews, Christians or Muslims who were suspected of apostasy or blasphemy. Many suffered harassment and even death. Thus if science did flourish during this golden age, it was in spite of Islam and not because of it.”

  • Carl McColman

    Joseph (Strácálaí), Your meditation on the role that power plays in interreligious dialogue is, I think, important. I think the question requires a further consideration of a fourth element: secularism. That is the force that enables us to trivialize each of these paths into caricatures similar to those that you’ve described. But can a pre-secular Christianity even engage in interreligious dialogue, or is it wholly committed to merely converting the other? I don’t know. But the secular genie is out of the bottle, and so we who wish to engage in interreligious dialogue in a manner that is truly respectful of all parties involved must grope through the darkness to find the light of a post-secular contemplation. And I don’t know what that means, exactly, as I myself am still groping in the dark.