“If I weren’t a Christian, I’d be a Buddhist.” I remember sharing these words several years ago during an apologetics seminar in the Pacific Northwest. I was concerned that the Christians with whom I was sharing about a Christian engagement of various religious traditions, including Buddhism, did not realize how deep, mysterious and profound many non-Christian faiths are.
When we view religious others in superficial ways, we often approach them and their arguments as straw men, which we can easily dismantle in battle. But they are not straw men, nor will straw men arguments penetrate the armor and engage the hearts and imaginations of those skilled in battle in alternative spiritual arts. As I write in my latest book Evangelical Zen: A Christian’s Spiritual Travels with a Buddhist Friend,
you can never reach someone’s heart for Christ if you don’t connect with his or her heart, and if you don’t find the person and what that person holds dear beautiful in some way. Straw men questioning in order to win arguments to show Christianity’s superiority (and perhaps one’s own?) have resulted in many Christians winning battles and losing wars. … I’m not about arguing and debating and fighting with my Buddhist friends. Most of them are pacifists anyway. But I do want to defend them from misunderstandings and ridicule, and make clear what really separates us. My Buddhist friends don’t hold their positions because they’re stupid. In fact, many hold their positions because they’re actually very smart, significant, and sensitive human beings, putting many of us Christians to shame (Evangelical Zen, pages 100-101).
While I passionately love Jesus Christ, and believe him to be the only way, truth and life through whom people enter into relationship with God (John 14:6-7), I still sense profundity in Buddhism. The Buddhist approach to suffering and the Buddhist aim to move beyond grasping and egoism challenge me and call me out of complacency in my spiritual sojourn, even as a Christian. If I weren’t a Christian, I would quite possibly be a Buddhist.
Certainly, Evangelical Christians and Zen Buddhists approach ultimate reality, suffering and non-grasping very differently, though we can learn from one another. My Buddhist friends teach me in their zealous adherence to their tradition to cherish Jesus’ call to die to myself if I am to find life. Only as I move beyond grasping and die to my egoistic desires in view of Jesus will I lead others to consider Jesus as worthy of serious consideration. If I don’t take him seriously, why should they? And if I don’t take their convictions, stories and practices seriously, why should they consider mine? They are not straw men, nor are their perspectives. If I do not cherish them and seek to guard their dignity as humans created in God’s image, I do not love them.
Apologetic arguments and rhetoric not shaped by love of the spiritual other is like wood, hay, straw, and stubble. Such disengagement will burn in the end, just like cold, unfeeling hearts.