My friend Martha just alerted me to this wonderful article by Thich Nhat Hanh. It looks like it’s quite a few years old, since in it he talks about wanting to write Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, which was published in 2000. But its message remains important for us today:
In this article, the good Vietnamese monk tells the story of counseling a young Buddhist woman who had fallen in love with a Catholic man, and was distraught because his family was insisting that she become a Catholic in order to marry him. After speaking with her, Thich Nhat Hanh basically gave his blessing for her to enter the church, suggesting that if she continued to do mindfulness work, she could be a Buddhist on the inside, even while practicing Catholicism. She thought it over, and her reply is worth considering, as she weighs the merits of the two faiths: “[Buddhism is] a tradition that is so embracing, so tolerant, so open, if I abandon it and turn my back to it, I am not a person of value. [By contrast, Catholicism is] a tradition that is so strict, that has no tolerance, that is not able to understand, how could I formally identify myself with it?”
So much of the “we’re right and everyone else is wrong” thinking that characterizes conservative religion (not just Catholicism, although Catholics do have plenty of it) comes from an earlier time, when religion generally was deeply intertwined with tribal or national identity. To reject the other faith was part of maintaining the boundaries of one’s own tribe/nation. The problem is, such a world no longer exists: thanks to technology, mobility, and population growth, we now encounter all the world’s religions in our lives, every day. In business, we are taught that the survival of a business depends on its ability to adapt to new economic realities. I think the same holds true for religion. Religions that respond to the encounter with other faiths by retreating into a defensive chauvinism will, eventually, appear to the world for what they are: close-minded, intolerant, fearful, and obsessive/compulsive. I’m not saying that we have to abandon all our principles and our values, far from it. But if we do not learn to find such a strong grounding in our own values that enables us to interact graciously and generously with those who do not share our values, then of what worth are our beliefs to begin with?
I remember reading a critical review of Thich Nhat Hanh’s earlier book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, in which the reviewer whined about how theologically imprecise the book was. And I suppose the book may well have been “imprecise,” but that’s kind of like complaining because the Declaration of Independence doesn’t offer a nuanced understanding of royalty. When confronted by the possibility of interreligious dialogue or interfaith spirituality, we are all faced with a choice: are we more invested in purity, or in hospitality? Speaking as a Christian, you can find plenty of ammunition in the Bible and in the tradition to insist that the point behind faith in Jesus is to be “pure” for God, with Jesus’ blood being that special reagent that will purify us in the ways that we are incapable of purifying ourselves. Okay, that’s one way of looking at it. But it is just as possible, just as logical, just as spiritually coherent to see in the Christian tradition an arc of wisdom that calls us to move beyond the purity codes that defined our ancestral religious practices, instead embracing hospitality, which includes everything from welcoming the stranger, to opening our hearts to those who are “different” from ourselves, to embracing non-oppositional or non-dualistic consciousness, consciousness that celebrates the action of the Holy Spirit in the most unlikely of places, rather than seeking to judge and divide all things into that which is “good enough for God” and that which is not.
So we face a choice. If we opt for purity, we are opting for a spiritual vision that divides the world into the religious haves and have-nots. Do you have Jesus as your personal lord and savior? Do you have the sacraments? Do you have the correct theological beliefs and opinions? If you do, you’re in; if not, well… too bad. Change now, or suffer later (in other words: if you’re different, we will either control you or threaten you; take your pick). If we opt for this kind of Christianity, then of course a book like Living Buddha, Living Christ will seem to us to be just so much theological wishy-wash. The one thing the upholders of purity cannot countenance is attempts to break down the lines that separate clean from unclean.
But our other choice is to opt for hospitality, and by doing so, we will become outlaws in the eyes of the purists. We will be dangerous because we introduce confusion and ambiguity and paradox into the religious life. What’s interesting, and perhaps paradoxical, is that while the purists denounce the hospitaliters as impure, the hospitaliters are willing to offer the same nondual acceptance to the purists as they offer to those who are on the “outside.” You can tell me that I’m not okay; but because I believe my okay-ness comes from God and not from the good opinion of men, I can accept you anyway. That’s the real beauty of hospitality. And I think that’s the beauty that Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of when he celebrates the possibility of interfaith marriage — or interfaith living.