Saturday, October 16, 2010

Catholic Church Closings, Rational Buddhists, and the Murder of the Imagination

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.


Anonymous said...

I was just reading this somewhere else on the web....

Crazy Wisdom

"The European court jester of the Middle Ages saw through pretence and hypocrisy, and enjoyed
poetic license in unhesitatingly telling things as they are. The `holy fools' ("Fools for Christ's Sake")
such as St. Symeon of Eemesa of the Eastern Church; Sufis including the legendary Mulla
Nasruddin; historical Zen iconoclasts such as the Chinese vagabond-poets Han Shan and Shih-te,
and other Zen masters; these are the spiritual kin of the Indian and Tibetan siddhas. Intoxicated by
crazy wisdom, the bawdy, spontaneous behavior of these unorthodox spiritual masters rarely
conformed to the rigid strictures, materialistic values and arid proprieties of respectable society.

Irreverently flaunting their uncompromising freedom by subverting all forms of social convention
and superficial value systems, these enlightened lunatics had a genius for shaking up the religious
establishment and keeping alive the inner meaning of spiritual truth during the time of Indian
Buddhism's external decline-- continuing to motivate and challenge those members of society open
to such inspired spiritual influence while appearing mad from the banal, ordinary point of view.
Presumably, this is why St. Francis of Assisi once appeared stark naked in church, and also
referred to himself and his disciples as "the Lord's jesters" -- parodying the apparent absurdity
of existence."

- Lama Surya Das, Crazy Wisdom and Tibetan Teaching Tales Told by Lamas

Nathan said...

Gotta love enlightened lunatics :) Thanks for posting.

Lawrence Grecco said...

thanks for discussing this. I also read a book a few months back called "Why I am a Buddhist" that had a very Batcherloresque approach to Buddhism--so lifeless and one dimensional it almost had me questioning why I practice. People get stuck on the rationality thing -- as if a spiritual system is somehow superior just because everything about it can be put under a microscope and be proven.

Algernon said...

Kyong Ho, one of our Korean Zen ancestors, said, "Don't expect to practice hard and not experience the weird. Hard practice that evades the unknown makes for a weak commitment. So an ancient once said, 'Help hard practice by befriending every demon.'"

I've noticed this is a persistent theme in Korean Zen: going through the unknown and the irrational to completely open the mind and the repressed imaginings that are hidden. I don't think we can skip this part; but some of us would really like to.

Miguel said...

Batchelor has been a topic point on a forum I participate in elsewhere.

I am baffled why Batchelor's views bother some so strongly (The title of the article you point to is "On Bullshit and Stephen Batchelor" no less).

It's a different view. If one is going to be bothered by a different view, how do you explain the big differences between a zen buddhist and an esoteric Tibetan buddhist? Is someone going to call either of them out for their "interpretation" of buddhism?

There is nothing wrong about a rational view within buddhism or questioning rebirth or karma. Questioning is basic. If, after serious trial and investigation, a particular interpretation doesn't work for you, you should leave it and go on to find something that resonates and works with you. Not something easy, of course, something profound. If you hit onto something profound that doesn't resonate with you, you'll be battling yourself forever.

Perhaps it might be good to be exercise love and compassion with Batchelor, wihtout giving up your own path.

Nathan said...


I think part of the issue is that Batchelor seems to be prone to making claims that he has "figured it all out" about whatever issue is it. Which is different than saying - hey, folks, I have a different way to approach all this.

It makes me laugh how often people try and turn around writing I do about macro-level issues and suggest it's about some "problem" I have.

I have zero angst towards Mr. Batchelor. In fact, I applaud him for paying close attention to teachings that many practitioners know nothing about. I just disagree strongly with the view that we should toss out parts of the teachings that can't be empirically proved, or which don't "fit completely" with the "modern, scientific" psyche.

This is the challenge of balance. And many Catholics and Buddhists are tussling within their respective communities, trying to figure out what's important and what isn't. I find this interesting, and a little unnerving, and so I wrote about it.


Miguel said...

I was born and raised Catholic. I don't see much difference between people having fits about someone who "has figured it out" and comes up with a somewhat different reality model. Catholics have it worse than Buddhists I think; the church is a mighty political warhorse, incapable of self-criticism and unable to come down to speaking terms with much of its lay congregation.

I've read some Batchelor material. I haven't encountered any cocky attitudes on his part that he's figured it all out. I don't have much trouble myself throwing out elements that one can perceive as arcane and are not empirical. I'd rather get inspiration from a fallibel and humane Jesus Christ than someone who could walk on water and cure blind people by touching their head.

Of all the characteristics that have attracted me to Buddhism it's precisely that it *is* empirical. It is a path that you can take and experience. You can test it and judge how it works for you. Stripped down to the basics, the path Buddha took and suggested others try is nothing if not empirical.

What I take away from Batchelor is that living the path is the important part, not consideration of issues like karma and rebirth and that, if you do live the path and rebirth turns out to be a "reality" (I don't know how else to put it), you are already carrying great karma with you. If there is no rebirth, no big deal, you have lived a good life and tried to improve the lot of others through love and compassion.

I think people are reading a lot of "holier than thou" attitude in his writings which frankly is not there. There is no reason to get attached to either his way or others!

Nathan said...

"There is no reason to get attached to either his way or others!"

True. But I see no harm in discussing some of it all the same.

I don't think we disagree about the benefits of an empirically based path. My point is that it can't be all about "the head," intellectual, rational, concrete. Which is why I fully am open to wild and perhaps fanciful stories because I see them as offering entry points that you might not otherwise locate.

Both the fallible and "perfect" miracle-delivering Jesus can teach us. Both the practical, experience-focused Buddha and the Buddha who stepped out of the side of his mother and had dozens of lives can teach us.

There's no need to literally believe any of the stories to benefit from them.

Petteri Sulonen said...

The thing about religion—any religion—is that whatever else it is, it's about internal, personal experience.

Whatever else personal experience is, it's not wholly rational. I'd even argue that it's not primarily rational. To my mind, a wholly rational religion is as absurd as wholly rational music or wholly rational poetry. Boring and hollow, too.

I'm not wholly rational. I'm occasionally a little bit rational. I like my Buddhism that way too, thank you very much. My poetry and music too.

Miguel said...

Nathan, I agree with you. The only point I would add is about "discussing". As I pointed out in my first comment the article you link to is titled "On Bullshit and Stephen Batchelor". That title is the opposite of "discussion", it's an immediate, and irrational put-down.

But, yes, otherwise I'm sure we agree. And, yes, while I reject taking Jesus' miracles literally as potentially harmful, as metaphors the stories are valuable.

Nathan said...


Yes. I agree that the article I linked to had too much blasting in it, and not enough openness or discussion. There was one point in the middle that interested me, which is why I linked to it.


andrew said...

great post and comments, Nathan. I think there is implicit hubris (or at least delusion) in notion that there is an "original" meaning of the dharma that can be found at this point. The Pali canon is culturally-conditioned, after all. Batchelor's most recent work would be much better off if he presented it as simply his understanding (as he seemed to in earlier works), and acknowledged that it, too, is culturally conditioned. Instead, he argues that irrational cultures have mucked-up the true dharma, and that has figured out what should be stripped away to reveal the real thing. His rationalism is cultural, too. I realize that the self-definition of rationalism is that it is not cultural but somehow objective, but I just don't buy that, and I find it to be anti-dharmic, basically, according to my own understanding of the dharma. If rationale is the bottom line, we're screwed.

Nathan said...

Hey Andrew,

I think you hit at some of the exact reasons I'm not so keen on Batchelor's work. I agree - if it all comes down to reason(as it's defined in a "Western" context), we are screwed.