Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Zen Christian

The Internet continues to feast on the story of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, the so-called Buddhist bishop-elect of Northern Michigan. I just Googled the term “Buddhist bishop” and got 778,000 hits. From sites I’ve looked at, postings on this story range from support, to caution, to the charge of betrayal and deceit.

Perhaps I’m a bit slow on the draw, but I’ve just gotten around to reading the piece Forrester wrote for a diocesan publication back in 2004 entitled “Bridging the Gap: Finding a Place in East and West.” It includes the now infamous declaration:

"My soul-work entered a new stage on Pentecost, at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp, when I, as a Christian, received Buddhist 'lay ordination' and a new name, to go along with my Christian name: Genpo (Japanese, for 'way of universal wisdom'). I now walk the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism."

Forrester has tried to explain the meaning of all this as follows:

“ … lay ordination has a different meaning in Buddhist practice than in the Christian tradition. The essence of my welcoming ceremony, which included no oaths, was a resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to the truth of the reality of human suffering. Meditation deepens my dwelling in Christ-the-healer.”

Even if Forrester’s explanation of his “lay ordination” is accurate, his published theological statements raise serious questions about his understanding of the Christian faith and, indeed, whether or not he really subscribes to the tenets of Christianity.

Here, for example, is a passage from his 2008 Trinity Sunday sermon that goes rather far in the direction of collapsing any distinction between human beings and the Second Person of the Trinity:

"… we heard in the gospel today in Matthew that, for His community, Jesus says that all, what all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. That’s what we heard today, right? All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Well, we could slightly rephrase that and keep it, keep its true meaning, I think, if we would say: Jesus realized that all that He is, He had received from God. Jesus is the one that realized all He is, 'all I am, I have received from God.' And in response, we read in the gospels later on His response, to having received everything from God is that, 'into Your hands I commend my spirit and Thy will be done.' He receives everything from God and He returns everything to God. That is what it means that everything has been given to Jesus, all the power. His very center, the center of His heart, of His body, of His mind, is the living God. All things come from the divine source for Jesus—who He is, His self identity, His soul, that just means His understanding of who He is, He has come to realize and it’s key in that baptismal moment, that He is the very presence of the living God. That is who He is. He is one who is unified with God. ... Jesus realizes that God dwells in His very being, He is one with God, and He is one with you and me. And because He is one, He is the lifegiver. He can show us the path of life, which is the path to realizing that we are one with God. We are one with one another."

I hear this saying that we’re all just like Jesus: one with God. And that the problem is that we just don’t know it. We lack sufficient knowledge or awareness of our true identity. We are unenlightened to the unity of all that is. This reduces Jesus to little more than a sage or a teacher of wisdom, rather like Buddha (or, perhaps, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas). And that’s a far cry from what the Nicene Creed means when it says of Jesus that he is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (BCP, p. 358). As a consequence, Forrester undermines the faith of the Church by denying the uniqueness and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Here’s another passage from the sermon:

"One of the amazing insights I have found in the interfaith dialogue is that, no matter what you name that source, from which all life comes—you can name that source God, Abba; you may name that source Yahweh; you may name that source Allah; you may name that source 'the great emptiness;' you can name that source many things, but what all the faiths in their wisdom have acknowledged in the interfaith dialogue is that, you and I, we’re not the source. We receive from the source, and what we are asked to do is give back to the source. In other words, what the interfaith dialogue has recognized is that there is a Trinitarian structure to life. That’s what I’m driving at this morning. We make the Trinity much too complex. The Trinitarian structure of life is this: is that everything that is comes from the source. And you can name the source what you want to name the source. And our response to that is with hearts of gratitude and thanksgiving, to return everything back to that source, and there’s a spirit who enables that return. Everything comes from God. We give it back to God. And the spirit gives us the heart of gratitude. That is the Trinitarian nature of life. And you can be a Buddhist, you can be a Muslim, you can be a Jew, and that makes sense."

There are several things to say about this passage.

First, it is deeply problematic to suggest that the world’s religious traditions are basically all saying the same thing. This requires making a distinction between a common essence to all religions on the one hand, and non-essentials such as creeds, liturgies, doctrines, dogmas, ritual practices, ethical norms, etc., on the other hand. For Forrester, the essence is “the source.” Things like the dogma of the Trinity (which he says we’ve made “much too complex”) are non-essential.

In his book No Other Name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Orbis, 1985), Paul F. Knitter notes a few of the problems with the common essence approach to religion:

In the way they stress the distinction between essence and nonessentials, followers of the common essence school give the impression that the more one enters into and becomes one with the inner core or essence of religious experience, the less one needs the nonessentials of religions. It seems, in fact, that in order to hold to the essence, one is better off discarding the nonessentials (p. 51).

Another pitfall in this same area is the way many followers of the common essence approach subtly suggest that … the nonessentials of religion are incidental, or completely arbitrary. … It seems that anything goes; any creed, code, or cult can express the mystery of the Ultimate as long as it is personally appropriated, as long as it fits the needs of many. The doctrines, the rituals, the ethical practices of all the religions are valid; they are all equally true.

What is naively forgotten is that the external forms of religion do affect the way the Ultimate is experienced and the way that experience is lived out in daily life. It is possible that some nonessentials can distort the reality of God and lead to practices that are not in harmony with the truth and goodness of the Ultimate. Also, certain “accretions,” certain beliefs and ethical norms, may provide a more adequate image of deity or a more relevant morality than other beliefs and norms (p. 52; emphasis in text).

I think that the common essence approach expresses disrespect for the genuine, substantive differences in theology and practice that exist between religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. As an example of one such substantive difference, I note that a Buddhist notion of "the great emptiness" is not what the Church means by "God."

It’s also arrogant and dismissive to tell other people, “You say that you believe in such-and-such and that your religion teaches X, Y, and Z. But I know better. I know that you really believe – and that your religion really teaches – A, B, & C. You’re just not enlightened enough to see it.”

This passage from Forrester's sermon also reduces the dogma of the Trinity to a rather vague conception of “the Trinitarian nature of life” or the “Trinitarian structure of life” in which “everything that is comes from the source” which one can call by whatever name one chooses (“the great emptiness,” “God,” etc.). It’s not difficult to see that this has little if anything to do with the Church’s understanding of God as three Persons in one Essence. Add this to collapsing the distinction between Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity and all of humanity, and Forrester effectively jettisons the dogma of the Trinity.

A final question from Knitter’s No Other Name? seems appropriate to raise about the implications of the common essence approach in Forrester’s sermon:

Does the common essence approach too easily throw out the traditional Christian belief in the uniqueness, the normativity, and finality of the revelation given in Jesus the Christ? (p. 54)

I think the answer to this question is “yes.”

For another critical take on Forrester's sermon, check out "The Anglican Centrist."

There are also problems with Forrester’s 2004 article entitled “Bridging the Gap: Finding a Place in East and West.” I’ll note just a few of them, starting with this:

"We also live in a world where not only religions, but denominations within religions, exclaim and proclaim that their way to God is the only path to salvation. The God of Abraham and Sara, of Jesus, of Mohammed, is even invoked to kill others. Fear, again, is the reason."

Pretty much everyone across the theological spectrum (excluding suicide bombers and other terrorists) condemns using the Holy as an excuse to kill others with whom we may disagree. I wonder what empirical evidence can support the blanket charge that the reason why some (most? all?) religious persons make claims to absolute truth is because they are afraid? And that this fear leads to murder? Besides being overly simplistic and reductionist, this also trivializes what’s at stake between different religious and philosophical traditions: namely, claims to truth.

Once again, this is a weakness of the common essence approach to religion, as Paul Knitter notes:

Does not such a staunch denial of any absolute religion run contrary to the nature of authentic religious experience? Does not any genuinely personal experience of the Ultimate contain a degree of absoluteness in leading one to assert that not only is this true for me but it can also be true for others? The experience of the Ultimate brings one to the natural contention, not that other religious experiences are false [although it certainly can and does do that], but that one’s own approach can also be true for them (No Other Name?, pp. 53-54).

Later in the article, Forrester writes:

"I see now a Jesus who does not raise the bar to salvation, but lowers it so far that it disappears."

I’m not sure where Forrester gets this Jesus, because such a Jesus is not portrayed in the New Testament gospels. And from what I know about the gnostic gospels, you can't find that Jesus there, either.

Then there’s Forrester’s take on sin:

"Sin has little, if anything, to do with being bad. It has everything to do, as far as I can tell, with being blind to our own goodness. And when we are blind we hurt ourselves and others – sometimes quite deeply."

Equating sin with blindness reduces the problem of sin to a matter of not being able to see. In other words, sin is a lack of enlightenment or a deficiency of proper insight. If we can just “wake up” and see things properly – including seeing our innate goodness – then everything will be okay. This fails to take seriously Christian conceptions of the nature, depths, and consequences of sin and evil.

And one more passage from Forrester:

"Zen offers a method, you might say, to see what Jesus saw in his own baptism: that we are indeed beloved by God. There is no need to cling to anything in the desperate hope that it is what will make us acceptable before God. All of creation is always already accepted by God as it is."

I’ve no quarrel with the whole “beloved by God” bit. John 3:16-17, it seems to me, provides ample justification for believing that we (and all of creation) are radically loved by God. The problem is with the parts I’ve put in italics. For in making these assertions, Forrester denies a core conviction of the New Testament: that something is deeply awry with God’s good creation, that there is a desperate need for healing and redemption that requires divine intervention. Instead, Forrester affirms that there is no need for transformation. There’s no need for intervention. There’s nothing to be saved from, a point which he makes in his Trinity Sunday sermon and which he seems to think is affirmed by the Syriac translation of the New Testament (wrongly, as I have noted elsewhere). Everything is as it should be ... if only we could just see it!

I’ve written previously of the incompatibility of the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding’s saying the shahada of Islam with her vows as a baptized and ordained Christian. And while I know more about Islam than I do about Buddhism, I’m not persuaded by what I’ve read that Forrester’s views are compatible with the Christian faith as articulated by Holy Scripture and The Book of Common Prayer.

Indeed, if what Forrester says in his 2008 Trinity Sunday sermon and in his 2004 diocesan article are representative of his theology, then I think he is unfit for having any place in the apostolic succession. I would even go so far as to say that he shouldn't be a priest. What he is affirming in these two pieces simply cannot be reconciled with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church to which clergy have vowed to conform. And it doesn't help matters if the charges are true that he drops the Nicene Creed from the Sunday liturgy and writes Eucharistic prayers for use in principal services of worship on Sundays (both of which openly violate ordination vows). And then we have to add to all of this concerns about the search and election process that led to his nomination as bishop. What a mess!

The problem here is not that Buddhist meditation techniques might be helpful for one's spiritual life. The problem is denying the dogmatic core of the Christian faith and replacing it with something else.


plsdeacon said...

Remember, Buddhism and Christianity are a lot alike - especially Buddhism (grin).

I think the "Zen meditation" is "wolf meat" that too many conservative/reasserter types have picked out. The real issue - as you so excellently protray - is Forrester's lack of Christian formation and his outright denial of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I'm in complete agreement with your "wolf meat" assessment, Phil. It's a red herring.

The real issue is whether or not Forrester is a fit candidate "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" (BCP, p. 517).

As to the faith of the Church - what we know about his preaching and writing thus far suggests that he cannot adequately articulate the Church's faith and that he doesn't believe in it anyway.

As to the unity of the Church - the controversy surrounding his election, practices, and theology have already proven divisive. I think that will only get worse if he's consecrated.

And as to the discipline of the Church - his failure to conform to the ordination vows he's already taken on two occasions (first as deacon, then as priest) - and perhaps also with opportunities for renewing those vows - suggests that he either doesn't understand what it means to voluntarily given up the "right" to ecclesial disobedience and/or innovation, or that he does understand but doesn't care.

On all three counts, I conclude that he's not a fit candidate for bishop in God's holy Church.

plsdeacon said...

I would say that he is not a fit candidate for confirmation let alone ordained ministry. But then I am responsible for teaching the confirmation class at my congregation.

Unfortunately, I believe that he will receive the necessary consents. The "party spirit" (Gal 5:20) that exists in TEC as a result of the +Righter trial and the +Robinson consecration have made it such that if the "conservatives" are against something the "progressives" think it must be good and vice versa.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I sincerely hope your prediction about the party spirit in TEC prevailing in this case proves to be wrong, Phil!

Joe Rawls said...

God forbid we should elect a bishop who might be, say, an oblate of a Trappist monastery, who actually knows a lot about the Christian contemplative tradition, and who consciously bases his spirituality on it. Or would the "Buddhism is cool" folks think he was too rigid?

Bryan Owen said...

Good question, Joe. They might think he was too Christian!

eric said...

Thank you for writing this, and for pointing out that syncretism is offensive (for lack of a better word) to both religious parties involved.

Certainly, we can use the similar "essence" of religious goodwill to work together, but we must respectfully acknowledge (even celebrate?) our differences.