What If We Viewed Christianity Like Buddhism?

What If We Viewed Christianity Like Buddhism? September 26, 2022

“Buddhism is not a religion. It’s more like a philosophy,” is a refrain I often hear these days. Such words are mostly uttered by Westerners who practice Buddhist meditation and read Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh but do not belong to a temple community.

Buddhism is a Religion

During my interfaith minister studies in 2016, I explored a variety of Buddhist traditions from Tibet and Malaysia to Japan and beyond. I found much more variety than I expected, from the bare bones of Zen Buddhism to the pomp and circumstance of Tibetan Buddhism with its wide-ranging philosophy to Japanese Buddhist services that looked like traditional church services in the West. Saying that Buddhism is not a religion is a misnomer if there ever was one.

Still Viewed as Philosophy

Nevertheless, the teachings of the Buddha are still viewed as philosophy by an ever-growing number of people. Buddhist ideas have crept into psychology through mindfulness practices and influence a wide variety of modern belief systems. To me, as an interspiritualist, this is not a bad thing. Sometimes, I wish people knew where they were getting their ideas from. Other times, I wish they would handle the concepts with more care. But, on average, knowledge of the eightfold path and that life is ‘dukkha’ (which is often translated as suffering but literally means out of place; like an off-center wheel) is good.

What If?

It is no secret that many people in the West have turned away from Christianity. When asked, they seem to be rejecting rigid rules, closed minds, judgmental communities, and stale institutions rather than teachings in the New Testament. Nobody ever seems to respond: “All that ‘forgive them because they don’t know what they do’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ stuff isn’t working for me anymore.”

With that in mind, I began thinking. What if we treated Christianity in the same way as Westerners treat Buddhism? What if we looked at the words of Jesus (Yeshu) primarily as philosophy?

Maybe there is no appetite for that. I don’t know. In many cases, those who have rejected Christianity have jumbled together the teachings of Jesus and things they didn’t like about the church. Still, I am sure that some people would jump at the chance if it became socially acceptable to treat the words of Jesus like philosophy rather than religion.

From Another Perspective

I first met people who used the words of Jesus like philosophy, when I began studying yoga in the 90s. Maybe they were trying to connect with a mainly Christian audience—Paramahansa Yogananda did this frequently in his writings—but the effect remained. Listening to someone from another tradition quote ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘knowing people by the fruits of their actions’ was eye-opening. The words sounded different than they had when coming from the mouths of priests; the meaning somehow more profound.

Morals, Stories and More

Those who want to use the words of Jesus philosophically have plenty to choose from. Moral teachings, parables—which he used because he tried to reach people where they were, not where he was, understanding that “they seeing see not; and hearing hear not”—and a string of contemplative one-liners; “do not pray in public like the hypocrites,” “seek and you shall find,” “no person can serve God and mammon,” “judge not or be judged,” and “there is no profit in gaining the whole world if it means losing your soul,” to name a few.

I already know people from other traditions who seem to quote Jesus freely. Muslims revere him as a prophet. Yogis use his teachings to support their own, as Swami Prabhavananda did when he wrote The Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta. To turn the tables, I even know Buddhists who quote Christian morals as a supplement to their Buddhist meditation. The one group that still seems to stay away from most things Jesus is the spiritual-but-not-religious community, especially those who have left Christianity.

Blasphemy or a Good Idea?

Naturally, some people will view this idea as blasphemy. That can’t be helped. Nonetheless, I think it’s a good idea. I know that I distanced myself from the teachings of Jesus when I left the church in Iceland—which is very different from the church here in the USA, by the way; I could write a lot more about that—and it took me a while to realize I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Based on my experiences, I think that by treating the sayings of Jesus more like philosophy and less like religion, those who have left the church can allow themselves to hold onto parts of Christianity rather than rejecting it altogether. And those who have always been outside of Christianity might find something appealing to add to their interspiritual approach.

Gudjon Bergmann
Author and Mindfulness Teacher
Amazon Author Profile

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