Saturday, October 16, 2010
The local Archdiocese just announced the closing of 20 churches, with mergers of others to follow. It's the largest restructuring in the Twin Cities Catholic history, and clearly shows that attendance is lagging at best. The announcement comes just weeks after the release of a controversial DVD that was sent to the homes of over 400,000 Minnesotan Catholics. It's main thrust is an anti-gay, pro-heterosexual marriage message that urges people to vote for candidates that represent those views, and to push for a Marriage Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. While a certain percentage of Catholics stand right behind the current archbishop and his highly conservative political agenda (he recently denied communion to supporters of gay marriage), it's definitely not a majority. In fact, even some parishioners who are against gay marriage and abortion - the two heaviest planks on the local Archdiosese's docket - aren't happy with decisions to deny communion and marginalize GLBTQ members of the broader church community.
As far as I'm concerned, the out of tuned-ness of the Catholic church hierarchy these days - for God's sake they're trying to bring back the Latin mass - is a major reason for the disappearance of their congregations. Any group that doesn't balance history and tradition, with innovation and modernization, is doomed to fade. I think this is especially true when it comes to groups tapping into core human values.
Which leads me to article taking aim at Stephen Batchelor's approach to Buddhism. Batchelor might be considered a member of the opposite extreme in Buddhism to people like our current local Archbishop. Whereas Bishop Nienstedt represents clinging to tradition (or what's believed to be tradition), Batchelor represents a clinging to innovation (albeit one to an imagined tradition). They are, in my view, doing similar things in opposite ways. Whereas Bishop Nienstadt is suppressing all forms of progressive congregational leadership and message, Batchelor is trying to jettison elements of Buddhism, such as rebirth and the law of karma, that have been present from the beginning. Both use foundational texts - the Bible and the Pali Canon - as platforms for their arguments, another fascinating similarity.
My interest in all of this concerns the point I made above about balancing tradition and innovation. This seems to be something humans struggle with in general, not just in matters of spiritual life. And perhaps it's supposed to be that way. In relative world, everything is impermanent, right? No matter how well we bring the most vital of the past forward, eventually that past will simply be past.
One of the reasons I dislike the Buddhist model presented by Stephen Batchelor is that it is too rational, too heady - and dare I say it, kind of boring. There's little room in it for the wacky, mind blowing irrationality of koans, even if Batchelor doesn't explicitly dismiss them. There's zero tolerance in his model for the wild narratives of the Lotus Sutra, the Jataka Tales, or any number of other spiritual teaching stories. And really, when it comes down to it, I'm not terribly sure where the heart, with all it's difficult to "know" influence on the mind, within Batchelor's framework.
It would be foolish to suggest that Stephen Batchelor is a lone wolf crying out in the wilderness. All across the Global North Buddhist landscape, there are efforts to eliminate or downplay the less rational, practical elements of Buddhism. And I think to some degree this is a mistake, precisely because even in this modern age, humans need vibrant stories to learn by. Perhaps we can use the tools of scientists and secular humanists, for example, to understand these stories in a different way from our ancestors, who might have been prone to believing they were concretely real too much. But to eliminate all traces of the irrational, the fancy, the wild is, in my view, like destroying a rain forest and replacing it with fields of corn and soybeans. Sure, there are practical benefits here. But at what cost? In other words, say we moderns discredit and banish all those mythological tales about the Buddha, and other teachers that follow. What will we have then?
The way I see it, there is a kind of murder of the imagination going on in both the Catholic church hierarchy and in rationally bent Buddhists. For the church leadership, there is a marked failure to imagine how Jesus might actually apply his wisdom to the world we live in today. And for Buddhists like Mr. Batchelor, there is a failure to imagine how stories which may have no basis in reality can lead us straight into reality.