Zen and God’s Grace

Zen and God’s Grace March 30, 2020

One consistent part of my spiritual journey for the past twenty years has been my use of Buddhist teachers as conversation partners to help me in my own practice of Christianity. I read two books in early 2002 that changed my life: Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness. It was in the intersection of these two teachers’ wisdom that I found the truth that salvation is the journey to becoming the beloved of God (or as Nhat Hanh would say, becoming fully present).

I know that some of my most beloved and respected colleagues are rankled by the pithy theological liberalism that says, “All roads lead to the same place.” Often when somebody says that, it means they’re making an excuse for not taking any road anywhere. I love what Jesus says in The Shack: “Not all roads lead to me, but I will come down whatever road you’re on to find you.”

At the same time, I have spent most of my life living in a posture that Richard Rohr terms “interfaith catholicity.” If there is a way of interpreting Buddhism and Christianity that results in points of intersection that reinforce each other, then I take that reading rather than seeking to prove my zeal for Christianity’s uniqueness through an uncharitable, caricatured reading of Buddhism.

My further presumption based upon Wesleyan Christianity’s doctrine of prevenient grace is that God is continuously reaching out to all peoples everywhere with his grace and he doesn’t just use white Alabamians who feel called to travel across the world to preach in English to unreached people groups and get martyred by them.

I actually think (gasp!) that God can even use other religions to guide people into the unconditional love that is the whole point, because I believe that holding to the view that a particular set of words or ideas are “required” for God’s grace to work is itself an affront to God’s sovereignty and, paradoxically, a complete betrayal of Christian orthodoxy (and if you need to call it a special kind of grace for your house of cards not to fall over, I’ll allow you that).

Becoming the beloved of God and becoming fully present are both the same thing and not the same thing. The reason I have not abandoned Christianity and taken up the mantle of Shakyamuni Buddha is because I believe there is a deep love beyond my deepest deep that gives me eternal life. Were I to discover that the universe is only a single, undifferentiated, impersonal consciousness that I am supposed to dissolve into, that would be more hell to me than heaven.

On some days, I feel that way. And on other days, sitting in the sunshine without any responsibility that I’m pressured with other than drinking up existence is incredibly comforting. Sometimes dissolving into existence is bliss, but I insist on calling existence a You rather than an It, as Martin Buber would say. Because it is as a You that the universe/God/existence/life loves me. And it is as a recipient of that love that I am fully opened like a flower to the sun to drink up the grace that is everywhere.

If the only tools I had were sitting and following my breath or even using mantras and koans in which I don’t have any help from a divine other, I wouldn’t make it. Whatever oneness exists, I declare it to be personal, intentional, and intimately enraptured with every single human and even every single atom.

The problem that Buddhism (and Zen in particular) recognizes is that words always fail to do justice. And yes, this applies even to the words in the Bible. As soon as they are finite, “perfectly clear,” and straight-jacketed under the grasp of a control-freak dogmatist (or the zealots of any one particular European theologian who has already blessed us with all the commentary that needs to be written), they lose their life. John 1:5 captures this well: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not seize it.”

The reason light can never be seized is because light cannot be enclosed or it is no longer light. Everyone who tries to grab and master the light ends up with a fistful of darkness; we can point but never seize; we can wonder and delight but never conclude. Nowhere is this more true than among the most parsimonious religious zealots who think they have all the answers. If God is a gardener, then a man with all the answers is like a garden pot so chock-full of concrete that no living water can even penetrate it.

If scripture is theopneustos (God-breathed), then hammering God’s words into bricks for a systematic theology (taken out of the impenetrably poetic/narrative context in which they were revealed) removes the divine breath entirely from them. If scripture is not poetry capable of being played with and giving wild meaning to a wide variety of co-creators (including black lesbian atheist poets), then it creates exactly the kind of fearful, tight-fisted humans that fundamentalists like John McArthur breed through their teachings. Many evangelical Christians are only different than John McArthur in degree but not kind.

So I’m being overly playful with metaphors right now and not getting to my point, which is this. I’ve been reading and re-reading a passage in Albert Low’s To Know Yourself: Talks, Stories, and Articles on Zen that seems to capture profoundly the kind of basking effortlessly in God’s unconditional love that I think the Christian doctrine of justification by faith is about. I will need to connect a few dots first for this to make any sense.

I believe that the story of Adam and Eve presents us with a very specific depiction of humanity’s predicament that is both similar and different than the Buddhist claim that our plight of suffering is due to attachment. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit (whose specific identity as the knowledge of good and evil is not insignificant), their eyes are “opened” in a way that fills them with shame at their nakedness.

Their mistrust of God’s perfect benevolence and seduction by the voice that says God is holding something back from them results in them becoming their own “gods” in a way that they utterly cannot handle. They receive self-consciousness in a way that they didn’t have in Genesis 2 when they did not realize that they were naked (which is to say when nakedness had no meaning to them because it was just their bodies and there was no reason to be afraid or ashamed about them).

When we live in fundamental mistrust of God, we hide in the bushes from God and we make excuses for ourselves when confronted with our mistakes like Adam and Eve did. This kind of posture is what I call self-justification after finding the terminology in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Self-justification is the prison that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross is designed to liberate us from.

(Note: I do not know to what degree self-justification is an affliction unique to Western civilization, but I do know that other cultures are not nearly as individualist as we are and perhaps need an entirely different story to get to the place where divine embrace is their ontological foundation. The legacy of colonial genocide justified quite literally using the Great Commission itself by European 16th century theologians — I wrote a seminary term paper on this — utterly shipwrecks for me the surety of saying that any specific cognitive theological formulation of Jesus’ work on our behalf is required for each individual human to be reconciled to God.)

In whatever case, I need to receive the good news that I do not have to justify my sin because Jesus has put it on his cross. Within my religious tradition, Jesus paying the price for my sin means that I gain the freedom to be wrong, which is the first step to any kind of spiritual growth. As long as I am trying to prove that I have been right all along, I can memorize the entire Bible and put on grandiose displays of “on-fireness-for-Jesus” but I remain unsaved.

The most pernicious thing about self-justification is it robs us of our ability to worship, which is the way of experiencing the world that gives us life. In my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us, my first chapter is called “Worship Not Performance.” I drew heavily from Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, who wrote that humanity’s fundamental vocation is worship.

I think it’s a complete misunderstanding to say that worship only counts if it involves saying/singing correct things about God (that would be performance because correctness innately reveals effort that is seeking to earn something). My friend Jonathan Martin preached a sermon series on the psalms that helped me see that worship is the pure delight that David discovered in God’s delight in him. Worship is embracing the joy that the divine wellspring of joy wants all of us to dance in. Sure, that joy can manifest itself in seeking deeper and more excellent ways of praising God, but it is not anxious about proving its rightness to anyone.

Let’s be clear. Worship happens every time children blow bubbles. Or blow out their birthday candles and make a wish. Or jump in a mud puddle and splatter it all over everything. Children live in a state of worship without knowing it, which is why Jesus said we can never enter the kingdom of God unless we receive it like children.

Every child comes to a point when it’s no longer okay to run naked in the backyard because other people are watching and the gaze and judgment of other people at some point finally shoves them permanently into the anxious mistrust their parents inherited from their ancestors all the way back to whatever primordial hominids became self-conscious for the first time who were retroactively named Adam and Eve by the Hebrew writers.

When children lose their innocence, they begin to perform for others. They seek recognition for their achievements. They argue defensively with criticism (or else internalize it as shame). The world is no longer a place where love is presumed as a default but a place where judgment is the new default. We all eat the same fruit Adam and Eve ate in each of our lives whenever we get to the point that our youthful knowledge of good and evil breeds shame, resentment, and bewilderment about the ways we have fallen short and received punishment.

Once we become performers, that’s the state that we stay in the rest of our lives unless we are rescued from it. Sometimes we are able to worship intermittently within that (sunsets, epic lovemaking sessions, etc), but often our worship is sabotaged by the need for it to count on Instagram or prove something about us to somebody else. The tragedy is that religion, which is supposed to be the place we learn how to delight in all things, has become a masquerade ball of performance.

There is nothing new about this. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus uses the Greek word hypocrites (hoop-o-cree-tays) which was just the word for actor (literally “under the critic(s),” not the meaning we have today) to describe the way that religious zealots have always been bigger performers than everyone else.

Within Christian tradition, we tend to label any perversion of Christian doctrine that makes salvation into a reward to be earned (through performances of various kinds) as Pelagianism (which is probably unfair to what the ancient monk Pelagius himself actually believed or wrote). In our current theological landscape, doctrinal Pelagianism is the predominant heresy plaguing the church, that is the idea that speaking correctly about God is how Christians gain salvation (even though this can never be acknowledged overtly since it’s incorrect to say so aloud). When theology is a performance by which we prove our orthodoxy and litmus-test other peoples’ orthodoxies, we have so badly missed the point that we are wrong even if everything we say about God is perfectly right.

Ephesians 2:8-10 provides the most succinct encapsulation of the central Christian doctrine of justification by faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s poetry, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Admittedly, I provided my own translation for the start of verse 10 because the Greek is poiema and the NRSV has some kind of hideous wording instead of just cognating that word into English which is how we got the word poetry in the first place.)

The faith that saves us is not our own doing. It’s a gift from God. It’s not something we can safeguard and firewall around ourselves by memorizing Bible verses. It’s not something that we can or need to prove that we’ve received by performing our orthodoxy for other people all the time. It’s simply the assurance that God loves me unconditionally and he will never abandon me. It’s trusting God, which is an infuriatingly mysterious thing to do that can look like a lot of different things, but basically operating under the assumption that I’m going to be okay because the one in charge has me in the palm of his hands even if I’m literally starving to death and mafiosos are actively hunting me.

It’s a whole lot easier to say I believe God loves me than to actually feel it with every inch of my being. One of the reasons I shit blood every 45 minutes is probably because I don’t yet fully accept unconditional God’s love for me and yet I’m getting closer every day. I am still trying to earn my self-worth, trying to get my viral tweet in the godawful Gehenna/Samsara called Twitter.

Notice the motive the author of Ephesians attributes to God for offering the gift of faith. He sets it up as a gift so that no one can boast. God isn’t doing all this just to feel like a badass authoritarian cosmic drill sergeant who gets a rush out of people saying Hallelujah every time he snaps his fingers. He just wants us to be humble and understand that everything we have is a gift from him so that we can be his gifts to other people.

That’s the whole thing. Receive the mercy; become the mercy; pay the mercy forward. And if there are people who get it without grasping the convoluted explanation of why there needed to be a divine human lamb’s blood on the altar because of the legacy of sacrifice as a sacred tool for cleansing ancient Mesopotamian communities of bad blood, then why is not okay for them to simply understand they have received mercy and they should show mercy?

To me, orthodoxy is whatever reinforces the critical point, which is this: stop trying to prove yourself right; accept that you are often wrong, entirely forgiven, cherished infinitely by the one who made you. One problem is that if you say well of course I’m forgiven because I’m not really that wrong, you’re still defending yourself and not getting it. Unless we know that we are sinners who need to be forgiven we will not be liberated by God’s promise of unconditional love; it’s unremarkable if we are fine just as we are.

I don’t believe Jesus has to be explicitly named in every story that people tell about divine grace because the only arguments I’ve encountered that say he does have to be named explicitly tend to be part of proving someone’s orthodoxy in a heated polemical context in which it’s being called into question (I’m thinking very specifically of John Wesley here).

I name Jesus because he’s the messiah of my story. And yes, his cross and resurrection matter to my story because I have my own cross, and he is resurrecting me from it every day. If I didn’t have the cross as part of my story, then I would just be an accursed blood-shitter whose incurable ailment is proof that no God who loves me has ever existed. Because of the cross, my illness is my wise teacher who brought me into deeper communion and taught me how to pray like I never knew how.

Hebrews 12:2 says that “for the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” That is my path walked by the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. My cross is my pathway to unspeakable joy, and that is the truth that my life has revealed to me over the past four months of desperately seeking remission for my ulcerative colitis even before the virus created an apocalypse. So let me get to the Zen part since I was unexpectedly interrupted by God’s poetry due to God having a point he wants to make that is probably a different one than the point I set out to make. I still think he wants me to make my point too.

This is how Albert Low says what I’ve been trying to say in To Know Yourself perhaps better than I have but using his own tradition’s spiritual vocabulary:

Pure awareness without reflection may be likened to a smooth sheet of paper… The mind of an adult resembles a paper ball that has been crumpled up… and out of all this comes a dissonance, a cacophony, just noise. But as one sits, so one allows the paper gradually to smooth out. As it does so, the wrinkles drop away, and more and more, harmony reappears and wholeness returns and makes itself known.

Underlying all our suffering is wholeness. Indeed, we suffer because we are whole… We are whole, one sheet of paper, but wholeness is masked and lost sight of in the crisscross of experience. We must allow wholeness to manifest itself. Wholeness will ultimately assert itself whether or not you practice Zen. Wholeness is basic reality and will ultimately make itself known. Indeed, because of this, because wholeness is asserting itself, you are working on yourself.

Wholeness asserting itself not the cause while working on yourself, that is sitting in zazen, the effect. Wholeness asserting itself is “working on yourself,” it is “doing zazen”… You are practicing Zen. But when all is said and done, you are not practicing Zen; it is simply wholeness that is making itself known. Resistance to practice comes from “me” practicing, “me” trying to divert the practice into making “me” happy, getting “me” free from pain. [87-88]

Augustine would call the “me” obsession in Low’s description homo curvatus in se. It is the basic condition of sin: being so preoccupied with defending myself, protecting myself, and indulging myself that I will never actually enjoy anything even if I laugh loudly at all the parties I go to, have incredible friends, etc.

The amazing thing that Low has given me to incorporate into my doctrine of justification by faith is that pure faith means embracing the reality that all my growth is simply “wholeness” (i.e. God) making itself/herself/himself known. The only thing that makes the perfect unfolding of the divine flower not inevitable is my lack of trust that it is inevitable. The only thing that disqualifies me from sitting at the wedding banquet where I will be married to Jesus with the rest of the church is my presumption that it could never possibly happen.

And yet I’m increasingly convinced that God is not going to let me dig in my heels and resist his love forever. God is going to keep untangling the knots in my shoelaces until I can walk free and barefoot even if I kick and scream the whole time he’s doing it.

In 2012, God said to me that he was exorcising the church of its legion of demons by casting them into a herd of pigs who would race down a cliff and throw themselves into the lake of fire. And that is precisely what has happened. The legion has been exposed in all its ugliness. No need to name all the names beyond the big orange baby whom too many evangelicals in whatever percentage love so dearly (for a complicated tangle of reasons that aren’t all evil). The church may not survive in its continuous apostolic form (at least in my country) as a result of this season of exposure almost categorically alienating two generations of our people.

The other thing God said in 2012 is “No one shall resist my will.” I said, “Impossible, Lord.” And then about a month ago, he gave me the vision of the father untangling the knots in the shoelaces. He really can untangle them all and reveal the genius by which he has called sheep from every fold into his banquet. If he desires (and I think he does), he can raise up Mt. Zion from the ground and send a temple down from heaven where Jews, Christians, and Muslims can worship together. And that would be the end of any kind of history that we thought was the only way humans were allowed to do things: the inevitability of war, crucifying infidels, etc.

Whatever tactics God chooses to employ, the divine flower will unfold itself. Since God made it clear through Jesus’ crucifixion that he chooses weakness to wreck the world’s understanding of power, I imagine that he will continue to work quietly in spite of the best efforts of his many handlers to control him and expropriate him as hood ornaments for their triumphal imperial procession. Maybe he will break humanity so utterly through this virus that his mercy will finally be unavoidable. Desperation has always been his most precious gift to me.

But whatever way God chooses, his/her wholeness will make itself known. For some reason saying it that way makes it work for me in a way that it didn’t before. The mangled paper ball that I have become will smooth out over time and become a smooth, delicate, unwrinkled sheet of paper again with perfect poetry written on it.

I can collaborate with God or fight him tooth and nail every step of the way; he’s still going to carry me to the changing table, put on a new diaper, and lay me down in my crib. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a far better journey when I cooperate with God’s will. But somehow knowing and trusting that God’s flower will unfold itself with or without me takes away all the weight that I thought I had to carry so that I can simply glide into being fully awake and entirely saved.

And the last sentence that divine wholeness gives me is this: breathing itself is heaven, because the human breath is the name of God.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!