Historically, Christianity hasn’t been very open to the idea of being influenced by other religions. In the early days of the faith, we borrowed from Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism and various “pagan” religions, repurposing their symbols to mean something new. Following the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, we focused more on converting others to our faith, or at least denigrating the legitimacy of other faiths to establish ours as superior.
Oh, but times, they are a’changin’.
Our numbers are down, our influence continues to wane, and we’re struggling with what I call in “postChristian” both an identity crisis and a credibility crisis. The good news is that, in this newly humbled state, lies a glimmer of opportunity. Not the kind we’ve had previously, to once again dominate the cultural landscape. That time has passed. Rather, as more of us within the Christian faith take less for granted, we’re asking harder questions:
Who are we?
Why do we still identify as Christians?
How could our faith be better?
We need not look any further than the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan Buddhist faith, and in particular, the titular leader of the Tibetan people (don’t tell the Chinese government). In a recent statement, some of which was shared in a Huffington Post article, the Dalai Lama put forward the bold proposal that we he the last in a line of Dalai Lamas, a position within Buddhism for almost five centuries.
“The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular,” he said. “Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”
Now, imagine the Pope saying this. Actually, it’s a little more conceivable coming from Pope Francis than from his recent predecessors. Or imagine the head of a major denomination dissolving their position and the general office than accompanies it, not out of financial necessity, but simply because they felt the role had run its due course.
Considering the entire scope of the comment, it’s reasonable to assume that part of his intent is politically strategic. After all, communist China claims Tibet – the spiritual and cultural epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism – as one of its own territories, and Tibet itself is not a democracy. Ganden Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, told the Post for the same article that “His Holiness is looking for the resolution to the China issue and for [the Tibetan people’s] own governance. Both of those issues are looking for what’s best for the Tibetan people.”
Imagine a religious body potentially sacrificing centuries of tradition and spiritual practice for the betterment of its people. Sounds like something Jesus would do.
What might such sacrifice look like in the Christian world? Consider this quote from “postChristian:”
The United Nations estimates that the entirety of the world’s hunger problems could be solved with an annual budget of approximately $30 billion. Meanwhile, a recent study by The Economist magazine estimated that the Catholic Church in the United States alone had an annual combined budget of $170 billion in 2010, when all of the assets of the Church are considered together. So in theory, by allocating about one-sixth of the total budget of the Catholic Church in the United States to solving hunger (not counting any other denominations, religions, or even Catholic institutions outside the United States), hunger could conceivably disappear from the face of the earth.
The Dalai Lama goes on to say that, if the Buddhist community determines to keep with the tradition of appointing a new Dalai Lama upon his death, the faith might benefit from a woman’s hand and heart. He cites the desperate need for greater compassion in the world as at least one reason why a female leader might be better suited to lead.
If there’s one thing I’ve always been particularly attracted to in Buddhism, it’s the emphasis on placing one’s ego second to the needs of others. God knows I need all the help with that I can get. And at least rhetorically, Christianity holds a similar value at its heart.
But when it comes to our institutional systems, preserving what once was too often gets in the way of actively and fearlessly invoking what might be. Let’s take this opportunity to learn from the Dalai Lama’s example and practice a little bit more of what we preach.
Christian Piatt is the author of “postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care?” and a blogger on the Patheos Progressive Christian channel. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.