James FordDr. James "Jay" Ford is Professor of East Asian Religions and former Chair of the Department for the Study of Religions at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Jokei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan and The Divine Quest – East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities. Dr. Ford is currently working on a social history of Mahayana Buddhism. Praxis Circle interviewed Dr. Ford because of his knowledge, expertise, and experience with Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, and with Christianity, and his ability to speak with authority when comparing Eastern and Western worldviews and their differing concepts of ultimate reality.
So I grew up in North Carolina. Originally my family’s from Richmond, Virginia. Went to public school in North Carolina. Went to Chapel Hill. Majored in mathematics, but part of that was in business. I tell my students that I was essentially socialized to go into the business world, so I never thought of anything other than that.
One interesting note, I didn’t take one course in religious studies at UNC. When I graduated, I moved to New York City and was in commercial banking for a couple of years, and then found my way into consumer product marketing, and ended up being in New York for a total of four years, and then was moved by a company to Greensboro, North Carolina, where I basically did brand management, consumer product marketing.
When I was 30, I had an interesting lunch with a friend who had just come back from Indonesia, and they’d spent about six weeks there and let a lot of backpacking travelers, and she was talking about all of these people who were traveling around the world, a lot of Brits, a lot of Australians, New Zealanders. After that lunch I started thinking that that might be something I’d like to do. I don’t know why but it just sort of stuck in my head and I couldn’t get it out.
So, three months later, I essentially resigned from my position in the corporation, sold my house, sold my car, and went off on a trip around the world starting in New Zealand, up through Australia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Africa, and ended up going to Israel, and then Turkey. That was the end of the trip.
It was a 13-month venture. Just became fascinated along the way with Asia, Asian culture, history, philosophy, religion. Probably read, I don’t know, over 100 books during that 13-month period. Just became really fascinated, and one of the things that struck me in that journey was how those people, it seemed to me, were experiencing the world and reality in a way that was different from me.
I just felt they were seeing the world and experiencing it in a way different than I did, and I really wanted to understand that. So when I came back, I decided, I looked into going to graduate school. I thought I just want to pursue this interest. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I could eventually go back to the business world, but I applied to go to Vanderbilt Divinity School and did what they call a masters in theological study, which is essentially a master’s degree in a divinity school, so I wasn’t headed toward ministry.
But the good thing about Vanderbilt was that I could sort of do both, a study of Judaism and Christianity, but they also allowed me to study Asian religions, Buddhism in particular, and so my interest was primarily in Asian traditions.
After doing that, and I began studying Japanese midway through that two years, I studied Japanese for another year, ended up going to Japan to study Japanese intensively in a program that was designed specifically for graduate students, and ended up getting into Princeton University in their department of religion to get a PhD in East Asian Religions, a very fortunate, wonderful program at Princeton.
When I finished at Princeton, as you can imagine, there are not necessarily a lot of jobs for East Asian Religion positions in the U.S., but there was a job at Wake Forest, which was sort of the ideal job for me. Perfect sort of mid-sized university, had resources for research, and all of that, but small classes and close student/faculty relations and that kind of thing.
At any rate, I was fortunate enough to get that job, and I’ve been there ever since. I’m not a full professor in East Asian Religions at Wake Forest University. That pretty much brings me up to the present.
What’s your religion or worldview?
Well, in terms of religion, I was raised in the Episcopal church. Was a choir boy and acolyte, and sort of still consider myself to be a Christian. We now belong to, my wife and I belong to a Methodist church, but I will say that I’m also involved in a local Buddhist Dharma group, a group of people who don’t necessarily self-declare as Buddhists, but do get together on a regular basis to meditate and kind of support each other’s mindfulness practice in learning about Buddhism.
I consider myself to kind of operate in both of those traditions in a way, and certainly my Christian theology, as I’m sure we’ll get into, is not necessarily sort of traditional Christian theology, but it is part of the mainstream traditional. So I actually practice both of those.
In terms of my worldview, that’s almost an impossible question to answer, so I’ll just kind of leave it at that for now. Yeah.
Have your priorities changed?
Yeah, I mean, I would say my priorities have changed, as I sort of noted earlier. I feel like I was socially and culturally conditioned to go into the business world, and to kind of operate in that realm, and I did for some time.
But, my sort of values of earning a lot of money, or acquiring a lot of material possessions and that sort of thing has sort of diminished over time, I would say. I mean, I’ve been fortunate, so, but it’s not like that was a priority, or being sort of a large, successful, prominent figure. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s sort of what has kind of changed and evolved.
I mean, I never imagined that I would be in the academic world. I mean, this is just not a sphere that was ever part of my growing up, and nothing that I ever imagined that I would be doing. It’s a different world, and one that I sort of appreciate in dealing with young people, you know, from all walks of life.
My values, I guess, I think my sort of goal in life is really try to be the best I can be at what I do, try to become as compassionate and serving as I can. Those sorts of values become most important to me. I sort of learned through studying these traditions that much of life is about cultivating certain virtues and values in one’s life, and choosing those wisely, and then finding the ways to cultivate those kind of values. I think that just was not part of my sort of value system growing up.
Have universities and students changed since our glory days of the 1970’s?
You have children, and anyone who does knows how the generations have sort of changed over the years. This generation of students is fascinating in a number of ways because they’re growing up in this social media world, they’re able to multitask in ways that I don’t think we ever imaged being able to do.
There are downsides to that. Part of that is they have lots of broad interests. They’re very sort of energetic, very ambitious, all of those are good things to have among college students. The issue, sometimes, is that they tend to be more shallow, and not go very deep. They’re also conditioned to be concerned about how they are going to get a job and get on in life. They’ve grown up through difficult economic period, and that sort of thing.
They’re preoccupied in ways that I don’t think my generation was about what am I going to do? How am I going to get a job when I get out of college? They are very oriented toward how am I going to do that, so they’re building their resumes and that sort of thing.
As a result, when they’re in college, they tend to be fairly dispersed in their interests. They’re doing lots of different things on top of all the social media kind of things they’re doing. So, it’s a challenge sometimes to get them to kind of focus and go deep into the study of something.
The other thing that is sort of sad for somebody like me who is teaching in the humanities, is their interest in the humanities, certainly majoring in the humanities, has diminished noticeably over the last 15 years, and I think that’s a loss, but you know, it’s kind of part of their generation. I think there are probably waves of periods in which the humanities may be more prominent than others.
But at any rate, having said all that, the students at Wake Forest are incredibly industrious, ambitious, very interested, very engaged. It’s kind of a privilege, I think really, to sort of teach these kids.
What are the primary themes of “The Divine Quest”?
So, after writing a book on a monk of 12th century Japan, I was kind of interested in going back to my comparative interests that had been sort of fueled when I was at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I had read several books that I’ll call history of God books. Karen Armstrong wrote a book called literally “The History of God.” Robert Wright wrote a book called “The Evolution of God.” Basically, they are tracing how God was conceptualized over time through the primary monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They talk about how the way God was conceptualized in those traditions evolved and changed over time.
I thought that was fascinating, but what was clearly missing to me in reading those books was a whole other part of the world that has its own conceptions of what I ended up calling ultimate reality, or what might be called the ultimate that are different from the monotheistic conception of God, but that also evolve over time.
One of my intentions in that book is basically to show for those who are most familiar with Western traditions or monotheistic traditions, how other traditions, particularly of those of Asia that I’m familiar with, conceptualize what we might think of as the equivalent to God. That was one sort of objective in that book.
Another was to sort of show people that the way God evolves in the monotheistic traditions has parallels to the way conceptions of ultimate seek in traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism in Chinese religions, that there’s a similar sort of principle going on.
And, so, then a third sort of objective in writing that book was to create some dialogue, because I spend a chapter looking at the evolution of God within Judaism and Christianity, and then I move to Hinduism and Buddhist traditions. So there is sort of something to be learned, I think, from both sides of that dialogue between those traditions, and I don’t mean to sort of throw all of Asian traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism under the same umbrella because they’re very distinct. When you get to China you see even Chinese religion is quite distinct from Indian religions, but there are some similar principles that I think those of us from the monotheistic traditions can learn from, and similarly there are elements of the monotheistic traditions, particularly there are ethical emphasis that the Asian traditions can learn from.
Overall, those are sort of the three main things I was trying to accomplish in that study.
Are all religions extremely diverse, changing over time?
Well, as I would note, I think if you look at any, what we think of as religious traditional, whether you’re talking about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, right. Any of those traditions if you study them closely over time, over a broad historical period, you will see that they evolve in significant ways. That was sort of one of the principles that I’m trying to get across in that book.
So, I actually don’t think the Asian traditions are that much different from the monotheistic traditions for example, but yes, it’s sort of extraordinary. The one sort of distinctive things about Asian religious traditions is they tend not to be exclusivist. They tend not to say, “This is the only way.”
In China, for example, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism tend to coexist quite easily. If you had gone to 12th century China and walked up to somebody and said, “So, are you a Buddhist? Are you a Daoist? Are you a Confucian?” They would have look at you like what are you talking about, because they would have participated in all of those traditions in various ways in different times of the year and so forth, so they didn’t see necessarily kind of a contradiction between them. They saw them as kind of different pathways for different contexts in certain circumstances, you might say.
So for that reason, there is kind of a plurality of religious practice that we are not familiar with in the West. That’s something sort of distinctive about Asian religion broadly, I would say.
Please explain the issue of “reification” in religious studies
Well, if your question is about why is reification an issue, in the study of religion what I would say is that we were just talking about the plurality of Christianity, of Islam, of Judaism, of Buddhism, right, that these religions have many different branches you might say, different forms of practice and teaching, that sort of thing.
When we reify those traditions, when we think of Buddhism, for example, so what do Buddhists believe? That is reducing this broad plurality to one thing, that’s reductionism, and it’s reifying Buddhism into some sort of fixed thing and failing to see that there may be a plurality of Buddhists traditions, number one.
But number two, that this tradition actually evolves over time in different forms and different places. So when we reify, and this is sort of a problem of reductionism, of reducing something to just one sort of essential thing, it kind of misses a whole broad spectrum of that particular traditional or teaching or whatever it is you’re talking about, if that makes sense.
That’s the problem. So, as I was noting earlier, when we’re teaching introductions to various traditions in the department of religious studies at Wake Forest, so we say introduction to Buddhist traditions, intro to Christian traditions to get across the idea to students that this is not teaching one essential introduction to Christianity, that there are in fact multiple sort of versions of Christianity that one has to understand. That’s the problem with reification just in terms of that particular domain, if that makes sense, yeah.
What is “divine” or “ultimate reality”?
So, in terms of what is divine, or what is ultimate reality, as I’m calling it, so again, when we’re studying comparative religion, when we’re studying different religious traditions across the span of time and the world, the tendency for early scholars in the West was to impose their own sort of framework all onto other religious traditions.
They sort of assumed that other traditions had something equivalent to a monotheistic God, a creator, deity who’s all-powerful, all-knowing and so forth. That’s a problem when you’re imposing a particular category.
The challenge for scholars who are studying different traditions is how do we define this category in a way that is not reducing it to our own sort of version of it? For some scholars it was the category of the sacred, or the category of the divine. So that became a category, we could look at Buddhism or Daoism or Hinduism and see something that seems to look like what we’re referring to when we talk about God. It’s not the same thing, but it seems to be at least getting at what is in essence that sort of…
I chose to use the ultimate, or ultimate reality. The sacred and divine, I included the divine in the title just because that’s something more familiar. The “ultimate reality quest” would not have made much sense for a lot of readers, but the divine is something familiar as sort of this broader category that crosses different religious traditions.
I ultimately came to this idea of ultimate reality because even in traditions like Buddhism, to call what they might think of as ultimate, and as you note in the book, that could be a variety of different things, is not necessarily what we think of as the divine, as something separate from the profane. The Buddhists don’t necessarily think that way.
So, ultimate reality seemed to be a category that was more inclusive, but actually sort of gets across this idea that we’re talking about something that seems to be in different traditions, but they’re calling it different things or they’re characterizing it in different ways.
How do you define religion?
So, my definition of religion, and I should just preface this by saying there are books on this, right, this problem of defining religion. It’s important to note that religion is not even really a category, a word probably until probably the 18th century. It is something relatively recent, and in the early attempts to define what religion is, and part of it came out of this idea, this encounter with other cultures in many ways through colonialism and that sort of thing.
They could travel to India or to China and seem to be practicing, and seem to be praying to something, and they’re going through rituals that look like something that we’re familiar with in Christianity, say, what is that? Is that equivalent to what we think of as Christianity, for example?
Early efforts to define what religion were, let me just sort of read you an example. This is a 19th century definition of religion by a Christian missionary: “Religion is the belief in an ever-living God that is in a divine mind and will ruling the universe and holding moral relations with mankind.”
You can see by that definition of religion that essentially, this is Harriet Martineau, is basically projecting her own understanding of religion from within a Christian traditional and saying, “That’s what religion is,” but she’s defining it in a way, and this was somewhat intentional, that would exclude those other traditions that we now intuitively would think of as religion.
And in fact, that’s exactly… So, religion becomes, “We have religion and you have superstition,” right? You have these made up beliefs. So as the tradition has developed, and the sort of field of religious studies developed, there’s been long debates about how you should define religion. Definitions that I like, and I’ll just share with you a couple, this is by a scholar named Livingston: “Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.”
Or another by a scholar named Schmidt: “Religions are systems of meaning embodied in a pattern of life, a community of faith, and a worldview that articulate a view of the sacred in what ultimately matters.” What they’re getting at in those definitions is this notion of religion as kind of a system of symbols that sort of fit together, and I can talk later about that in terms of Christianity, that has some communal value, but it brings people together in some way, and that it also functions to provide some framework of meaning and a sense of purpose.
Last, I would say, involves often something that in these definitions is defined as the divine or the sacred, something that transcends our mundane, profane world, but it doesn’t necessarily define that in monotheistic terms or even theistic terms.
So, the idea now in religious studies is to have a definition of religion that is inclusive enough to include those traditions that we intuitively know are functioning and seem to be doing similar things to the traditional we may be familiar with, but are also not so broad that it would include something that we think of like communism, that is more sort of political in nature. So, in any rate, those are two definitions that I would say I sort of like.
Could you comment on the sacred versus the profane? Mircea Eliade or Peter Berger?
So, in religious studies, the distinction between the sacred and profane is not a strict distinction. It’s defined differently in different traditions, but Eliade is sort of a separate sort of a category, but what Berger is doing is sort of showing, and what scholarship has sort of shown, is that what humans or different traditions consider sacred is largely something that they have constructed, right, something that they have perceived to be different, separate, and other. Something that is distinct from every day sort of life. But every tradition sort of defines it in different ways, but it is largely a constructed category.
There is nothing that is inherently sacred and distinct from the profane. That’s what most religious studies scholars would sort of argue, that these are distinctions that religions make. So, for example, in the Jewish tradition, or in many traditions, right, the temple is considered to be a sacred place, a place of God, but we define it that way.
But what is it that might make that impure? Well, a menstruating woman or anything related to blood, or any deformed priest that goes in there, right? So those things that are considered to violate the sacredness and purity of that place, we can see are constructed things, right? They are things that we perceive as being impure, right, that are not, that can somehow contaminate what we are defining into sacred space.
Jay Ford: What I’m sort of contending is what we consider sacred is something that we sort of impose that value upon it ourselves. We sort of create that understanding of the sacred, if that makes sense.
What’s interesting about the study of religion is studying how do different traditions define what is sacred and what is to remain pure and offset and separate from, and that sort of thing. And very often, that ends up being an interesting sociological analysis about who can be admitted to that place and when and that sort of thing.
What do you think of human nature?
Yeah, that’s a difficult question to answer. I mean, if you look at different traditions, if we talk about sort of traditional Christian theology, right, humans are tainted by original sin, so humans are sort of inherently sinful and violate sort of the commandments of God.
But if you look at other traditions, like the Daoist or the Confucian traditions, they have sort of debates about are humans originally sort of bad, or are they originally sort of good and impure, and then through socialization and culturalization they actually, you know, fall off the path or something like that. Or in the Buddhist tradition, there’s no assumption in the Buddhist tradition that people are in any way inherently evil or sinful.
The question of human nature is defined differently by different traditions. As with myself, would be drawn more toward a sort of Confucian or Buddhist understanding, which is that people aren’t necessarily inclined to evil or good, but that there’s social conditioning, that the cultivation of values in a society is what can steer them in certain ways, and so that becomes really important.
That’s not to say that there aren’t anomalies in this, that there are people who have mental problems or something like that that can do atrocious, violent acts and that sort of thing, but that people are acculturated in one way or another.
So in the Confucian tradition, they’re sort of neutral on whether humans are good or evil, or good or bad or that sort of thing, but they place a great deal of emphasis on the process of the culturalization, on learning and being socialized in the family and so forth. I’m sort of inclined to sort of believe that. I have issues with the Christian tradition that really sort of imposes this kind of sinful nature onto human beings.
Do humans have free will?
So, do humans have free will? Yes. Here’s how I qualify that, and this is where I think the Buddhist perspective is really interesting because Buddhism sort of talks about how we are socially, culturally conditioned to sort of behave, see the world in certain ways, this relates to the notion of worldviews, that we are socially and culturally conditioned to sort of see this, and on top of that we make repeated sort of choices.
If one wakes up in the morning and you hit the snooze button, and you hit it again in three minutes, and you hit it again, the more times you do it, the easier it becomes to do, so that we make choices that become what Buddhism would call sort of like karmic habits. All of that is to say that while we think we have where everything we do is a product of our own choosing, in fact we are conditioned to behave and choose actions in certain ways that are often very unconscious to us.
And so what Buddhism sort of says is that while we think we are making free choices, we are influenced by ways we’re not even aware of, and so the practice in Buddhism of mindfulness, of bringing the unconscious in a sense to the conscious realm of being present in the moment that the more we do that, the more free will we actually have. That is to say that we are actually making choices without these necessarily sort of conditioned influences dictating what we do.
So, I totally affirm the fact that we have free will, but I think in many respects we are conditioned to act and behave in ways that we’re not even aware that we’re so conditioned, so we’re actually not operating out of free will, if that makes sense.
What is reality v. ultimate reality?
So, going back to the question of the divine or the sacred world of reality, I think what we as humans are getting at, and I’m sort of talking about the divine quest, what we are seeking, is to get in touch with something of meaning and value that transcends our sort of every day profane realm.
That could be God. It could be the Dao, in the Daoist tradition. It could be nirvana or dependent origination in the Buddhist tradition. It could be Brahman in the Hindu tradition. But I think what those traditions and the people in them are trying to sort of get at is something that transcends this immediate experience of reality. That can become sort of the basis of our sort of largest, most significant aspirations, if you will. I think that’s what we’re trying to sort of get at.
What Berger would say is that however we articulate those things, they will always be constructions. I sort of emphasize this in the book, that is to say that when we think about God or the divine or ultimate, virtually every tradition tends to agree that this transcends language, concepts, any way that we can sort of fix it. So all traditions seem to sort of affirm that this ultimate reality, whether we’re talking about God or the Dao, is beyond language and concepts, and yet, language and concepts are the only thing we have to try to point this or get us close to understanding that reality if that makes sense.
So, the problem in many traditions, I mean, this is kind of the zen analogy of the finger pointing to the moon, right, if I want you to see the moon and I point you to it, if you’re stuck on my finger, you’re missing the whole point. So, the symbols, the language, the concepts that we use to evoke God, for example, if we get stuck on those concepts and ideas, then we’re missing the ultimate referent, which we all agree ultimately transcends that, if that makes sense.
So when I’m talking about ultimate reality, that’s what I’ve done. Whatever it is, however tradition defines that which has ultimate meaning and value, in that particular tradition.
Are we on a quest in life?
All right, well if you’re a stone cold, dyed in the wool, reductionist, materialist you’ve sure fooled me. Now, do you feel like it’s part of human nature for us to be on a quest? I’ve got a feeling it’s part of these religions as well in life. Is that part of life?
Yes. I just think it’s sort of a natural part of human experience and human imagination to try to find that which somehow transcends this world. Of course, I mean questions about where did this world come from? What is its destiny? Who created it? How did it come to be? How does it evolve? What’s beyond what we can sort of see? You know, all of those questions fall in to those questions of ultimate meaning, and ultimate reality itself.
And you’re trying to get there, right, in life, in this world to some extent?
Do answers here shape our lives?
Yeah, okay. All right, so I’m going to go to… This is kind of a Western question, you’re making me feel Western. Do these answers that we find in life’s journey actually matter to how we live our life or construct our world or that kind of thing?
No question they do. I mean, they inform some of our most important values, what is our social structure, our moral norms, what it means to live a good life, all of those things, so absolutely it’s vital.
What was the Axial Age?
So, there was a scholar in the 20th century, a philosopher, German named Karl Jaspers who was borrowing from previous scholarship, but at any rate noted that when he looked at the history of the world that there were places that roughly around the time of, say 800 to 200 before the Common Era, or before Christ, that kind of knew what he called spiritual foundations emerged in these particular pockets around the world, apparently separate from one another.
They continued to have significant influence over us today. So what he would have discerned was there seemed to be this place where the kind of axis turned in terms of religion, morality, and so forth. So he was talking about for example in India, basically we’re talking about the time of the Upanishads, the emergence of Buddhism, of Jainism. In China, we’re talking about the time of Lao-Tzu Zhuangzi, basically the philosophical founders of Daoism.
Confucius, those traditions continue to have significant influence in East Asia today. In Greece, we’re talking about Plato, Aristotle. In Judea, we’re talking about second Isiah, which is when most scholars feel like the emergence of true monotheism, like we’re talking roughly the sixth century before Christ. And he even included Zoroastrianism in Persia, but that probably was dated improperly.
But at any rate, at the same time in these various parts of the world there emerged these kind of new ideas that had significant influence, and some of the characteristics that he sort of saw in all of these movements, and they all take place in relationship to both cultural and technological advances in all of these places, so that populations were able to gather, and you had this growth of large city states. You can imagine people being moved from their small village life where everything was fairly provincial, and then they’re thrown in to a city life, kind of a version of globalization where they are confronted with these different beliefs by other people, and so it raises a lot of questions, and in a sense relativizes their provincial world view that they come into these kind of larger sort of populations.
And so it raised a lot of questions in all of these places, which is why he sort of conjectured there were new philosophical sort of powerful ideas emerging. But it also changed people from thinking in terms of sort of themselves as kind of part of a village whole to an individual autonomous person that had various choices in these places. The notion of the individual changed in all of these places during this time.
And finally, there emerged in all of these places a kind of vision of the transcendent. So in monotheism it was kind of monotheistic deity. In Hinduism and Buddhism, you had sort of different versions of that. In China you had conceptions of the Dao and so forth. There merged these ideas of some transcendent reality that was beyond what we sort of immediately see.
This is not to say that there were belief in various deities of gods in these various places, but this new idea emerged, and even the idea of sort of afterlife and what goes on there. So at any rate, the Axial Age is this time when all of these traditions that we’re talking about today basically sort of emerged. Christianity obviously came after this, but was influenced by this sort of transition.
So, it’s become a sort of fascinating study of scholars, and some people have problematized some of Jasper’s theories, but by and large people have sort of bought into yeah, there’s something significant going on in all of these, and they’re trying to find reasons why.
Does Axial Age show commonalities/stages in development? A 4th stage now?
Yes, absolutely. But I think as Jaspers sort of emphasizes, we have to sort of understand what’s going on socially and culturally here that may have triggered these kind of questions and sort of new imaginings as I talk about in the book in terms of imagination, kind of new conceptions of how humans might live and so forth.
It’s tied to advances in technology and populations coming together, and the convergence of and so forth. Some have even conjectured that we are entering perhaps a fourth Axial Age now, with globalization and the kind of interactions. I don’t want to get in to that, but we’re in the midst of a time right now in which lots of questions are being asked.
So what tends to happen in these periods is that the received view ends up being questioned, right, or challenged, and so new conceptions and new sort of imaginative ideas emerge. So, if you’re reading the book, and you’re looking at sort of post-modern theology in Christianity, you can see it’s in response to various challenges to traditional theology within the Christian tradition, and it’s provoked by various aspects of the world we know.
A very brief overview of how Christianity developed?
So, you know when we’re talking about Christianity, this is a tradition that clearly is coming out of the Jewish tradition. We’re talking first century, the common era, coming out of a period of Judaism that, well the Israelites had been sort of constantly occupied, attacked, right? There were expectations, during the century before Jesus there were expectations of a coming Messiah who was somehow going to restore Israel to its rightful place, because it had been occupied by so many other sort of countries, like Syria, Babylon and so forth.
The emergence of a figure like Jesus, I think is important to understand in that historical context, right? His followers thought he was the expected Messiah, and the expected Messiah at that time was to be someone who was either militarily going to restore Israel to its rightful place, sort of an independent nation, or through some great apocalyptic event was going to accomplish that. Those were sort of the two expectations within the Jewish tradition.
Jesus comes forth, ultimately is crucified, and as I would sort of put it, his followers would have asked him the question, “What happened?” Right? The Messiah didn’t accomplish what they expected. And so, however you want to sort of put this, their interpretation was oh, this is a different kind of Messiah. This was a Messiah who has sacrificed himself to atone the sins of the world, so this notion of sort of atonement theology emerged out of that context.
They were actually borrowing, right, from various ritual traditions within the Jewish… right, you sacrifice, Yom Kippur you sacrifice a goat and a sheep, right? So this notion of sacrifice to atone sins against God or the commandments of God was sort of… right? So they were filtering the idea of Jesus through that.
But at any rate, it takes several centuries for Christianity to resolve that idea. Who is Jesus? Is Jesus fully divine? Is he partly divine? Is he one and the same with God? And so it takes several centuries for all of that to get worked out in terms of the Nicene Creed for example.
Yeah, I would only say that what is significant, to me, in Christian history is when Constantine sort of adopts Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire in the beginning of the fourth century, that marks an enormous transition from Christianity from being religion that was, you know, sometimes oppressed and persecuted, but not always, but then became a kind of religion of the empire.
That sort of transformed Christianity into the world religion that we know it became, and the creation of the Roman Catholic sort of church, and the kind of institutional religion.
How did Hinduism develop?
When we think of Hinduism today, it’s probably not until first century of the common era that we have something that we would identify as Hinduism today, but before that there’s clearly a tradition that leads up to what we sort of know of as Hinduism to get today, that begins all the way back probably the beginning of the first millennia when these Arian tribe comes into northern India. They have certain beliefs in the sacred texts known as the Vedas, and I’m not going to go into all of that.
But around the eighth or seventh… I’ll just say about that particular religious tradition, they were polytheistic, so they worshiped a variety of different deities. Some were kind of perceived as being forces of nature. They were a priestly tradition, in that there was a priestly class that was responsible for various periodic sacrificial rituals that were meant to appease these various deities, and to ensure good crops and many suns and birth and so forth, so very sort of this worldly in its focus.
Around the eighth or so century there emerged some texts that we now call the Upanishads, which reflect a dramatic sort of shift, and this is part of the Axial Age that Karl Jaspers was talking about, that sort of imagines that this is where the idea of Brahman, this ultimate reality out of which everything comes, back into which everything goes. It’s sometimes described as kind of monistic conception of ultimate reality, so it’s not a personal god or creator deity, but it’s a reality that permeates everything.
So this notion of Brahman, this notion that humans and all Ascension beings have something called an atman, which we generally translate as a self, that is eternal, and that is ultimately one with this Brahman, so it is essentially saying that we have the essence of divinity within ourselves, and if we can sort of identify with that we can actually realize oneness with this notion of a Brahman. So there emerges that.
The idea of reincarnation, of worlds coming into being, evolving, going out of being over spans of millions of years, and then another world coming into being. That comes out of this Upanishadic literature, so we have a totally different world view compared to the early Vedic tradition.
The idea that we are all Ascension beings being reincarnated, life after life based on our karma, our sort of cause and effect of birth. So all of these concepts come out of the Upanishads, and it yields a sort of ideal quest for the ultimate realization to be one of somehow escaping from that endless cycle of existence, of birth, suffering, and death. Right.
The way the Upanishads, they sort of talk about this is through yoga practices, very sort of meditative trance states that one can go in that you can begin to sort of turn inward and identify with that eternal essence within, in order to achieve some sort of oneness with this Brahman that is ultimate reality in everything that makes sense.
So that’s a radical turn from the Vedic tradition that was focused on priests doing various fire rituals and making offerings of these deities and getting… Right now we’re turning to this quest for individual salvation, what they call mosha, or release from this endless cycle of birth. That’s a contrast to that sort of early tradition.
I’ll talk about Buddhism in a second because it comes out of this Upanishadic tradition. What eventually develops is that those deities in the early Vedic tradition don’t go away entirely, so the Upanishads were not, in a sense, rejecting everything that came before, even though they’re critical of some aspects of it, but those traditions actually kind of continue on side-by-side.
And so in India today, you have a variety of different deities, so another pathway if you didn’t want to devote yourself to this very extreme ascetic practice of trying to go through lots of yoga sort of exercises of limiting, you know, kind of all of your intake in the world, renouncing the world as it were.
If you didn’t want to go through that process, you could devote yourself to one specific deity. It could be any number of deities that you could become sort of a devotee to that particular deity. So that became another spiritual path for people.
So in India today you have both of those side-by-side. You have this devotion to a variety of different deities and you pay homage to that particular deity, and you have a loving devotion to that deity. And at the same time you might pursue this very sort of ascetic, what we might think of as kind of a monastic path to achieve realization.
In one sense you might be seeking just a better rebirth in one’s next life, but ultimately, you’re trying to get out of this endless cycle of birth and death.
Hinduism thrives on tolerance or choice of emphasis?
Right. So you end up having, in India, different sort of… you might call them like denominations that are devoted to various deities or kind of the most popular deities in Hindu tradition, so I’m a devotee of so-and-so or I’m a devotee of… So, you sort of identify as a group, or certain regions of India tend to be devotees of a party deity.
But the idea is they recognize that ultimately these many, they say as many as 330 million gods, are ultimately manifestations of this one ultimate reality Brahman. So there’s a recognition that… So they make a distinction between Nirguna and Saguna, Brahman with characteristics, Brahman with a face and a devotee, sort of a deity that I can recognize and pay homage to and make offerings to, and Brahman Saguna. Actually I think I got those reversed.
So Brahman Nirguna is without characteristics. That’s like this ultimate reality, these beyond concepts and symbols and language, and Brahman Saguna that is manifest in the form of a particular deity. So they recognize that there are different ways to sort of interact with this divine source.
They’re attacking the heart, mind, and the reification issue right up front.
Yeah, so the Buddhist tradition comes out of that, in a sense, that Upanishadic sort of ideal, so when the Buddha is born into the world, he’s born into the Kshatriya class, sort of warrior, ruling class said to be sort of a small kingdom in what is today Southern Nepal.
He essentially, for the first 30 years according to the narrative of his life, is sort of a prince living the luxurious life. At some point he encounters one of these Ascetics, one of these people who’s seeking escape from this endless cycle of existence, what is known as samsara. He encounters one of these figures and says, “That’s what I want to try to pursue.”
In terms of symbolism in the narrative of the Buddha, the fact that he had the most ideal, luxurious life, and renounces it is significant, right? That didn’t lead him full satisfaction. So at any rate, he sort of renounces that. He goes and follows this ascetic path, one that’s sort of outlined in the Uponishads, studies under two gurus in the forest, masters their yoga techniques, is able to achieve these high sort of transcendent states of consciousness, and so forth, but ultimately finds that wanting, so he basically sort of decides… And he actually gets to the point, according to that tradition, that he is living on one grain of rice a day.
Jay Ford: So that ascetic idea was in a sense deny the body, and identify only with a spiritual, eternal essence within. And he realized that he was probably going to die on this path, so he stopped it. So in the end he is somewhat critical of that extreme, but he borrows a lot from those basic sort of ideals, so the idea of samsara, this endless cycle of existence, of this quest to somehow escape from this endless cycle, all of that gets appropriated into the Buddhist tradition.
In terms of Buddhism, he ultimately realizes an enlightenment, and his realization is sort of encapsulated in what are known as the Four Noble Truths. It’s said that once he achieved this enlightenment, he encountered these comrades that he had known before, and he basically gave this first sermon that was the essence of his realization and this enlightenment experience.
The first noble truth that all life is suffering. The second is the cause of suffering. The third is the way out of suffering, and the fourth is how you get there. So, it’s interesting because he’s sometimes called Dr. Buddha, because he’s diagnosing in a sense the human problem, and the way to overcome it.
So the first is the cause of suffering is like the sickness. I mean, the first is suffering, which is the sickness. The second is the cause of suffering. The third is what it looks like to be well, and that is known as nirvana, this realization. And the fourth is the eightfold path, which is how you get there.
When Buddhism is talking about the fundamental human problem as one of suffering, that’s often misunderstood in the West in significant ways. A better translation of the term they use, which is dukkha, a better translation is something like dis-satisfactoriness, or discontent. As I sort of tell my students, from a Buddhist perspective, if you can imagine the most joyful moments in your life, you know when you fall in love, when you get married, when you have a child, when you achieve some goal, long-pursued, if you examine yourself closely in those moments of joy, you will sort of admit that there is some measure of fear in those moments that this person may reject me, this marriage may not last, this child may die, right. There is some awareness that this may not last forever. From a Buddhist perspective, that is dukkha.
It’s not denying that there are joyful moments in life, but it is saying that even in those moments, there is some measure of discontent. When I sort of try to put Buddhism in the most basic, mundane terms, it is the basic premise about Buddhism, about the nature of reality is that everything is impermanent. Nothing stays the same. So there is nothing that is eternal.
So Buddhism from the beginning is denying this notion of Brahman, this ultimate reality that is eternal and unchanging. It is denying this notion of an atman, some eternal essence within, right? There is nothing that is permanent, and were unchanging.
The problem is that we tend to sort of grasp and attach to things thinking they’re going to give us some kind of lasting happiness, and inevitably they will change. So that could be attaching to our own bodies, attaching to our own sort of truth claims and ideas, attaching to material objects, attaching to personal attainments, et cetera, et cetera. What Buddhism will say is that ultimately things will change, and you will experience loss. So that is sort of a measure, it’s kind of sort of an aspect of this kind of universal nature of suffering.
At the kind of deepest level, it is this attachment to yourself as some independent, autonomous, sort of eternal thing. At the deepest level, this attachment to this kind of egotistical way of being in the world, that one ultimately has to understand that we’re really more like processes that are kind of moving. If we understand that, I mean, this is kind of requires deep practice and so forth, if we understand that, we’re less likely to sort of cling to things and possessions and people, and even this notion of I. So we diminish our sort of egotistical tendencies, then we will suffer less according to Buddhism, and ultimately one can realize what they consider nirvana, which is escape from this cycle of samsara altogether.
Why is the Dalai Lama so happy? From his PMA (positive mental attitude)?
So, in Buddhism, there are a number of sort of virtues that one sort of nurture and practice, but two critical ones. One is compassion for other suffering beings, and one is loving kindness, so Karuna and Metta, and these are… So there are actual meditative practices in Buddhism, in which one tries to nurture this notion of loving compassion, or loving kindness and compassion.
Like literally, you sit down in a meditation and you think of yourself first, and you kind of like forgiveness for oneself, and then you think of someone close to you and you sort of extend sort of loving kindness to that person. Then you think of someone you don’t know, the grocery store clerk, and you extend loving kindness to that person. Then you think of somebody that you don’t like, that you don’t get along with, and you extend it.
Interestingly enough, in the last 20 years there have been sort of studies of brain activity of monks doing this sort of loving kindness kind of meditation, and what they see is this portion of the brain actually lights up. Essentially what they’re doing, and I was talking about sort of causality earlier, these practices are causal practices, right, they are nurturing neurons in the brain that sort of increase the capacity for one’s sort of natural, you know, sense of compassion for other suffering beings, or extending loving kindness to other sort of Ascensiate beings and that sort of thing.
What about Mahayana Buddhism and the Dalai Lama? How related?
And one thing Buddhism does is it extends this to all Ascension beings, not just human beings. Those become sort of central. The ideal, and I haven’t sort of talked about the emergence of Mahāyāna Buddhism, so this kind of great reform movement that takes place roughly a half century after the Buddha, the ideal in this form of Mahāyāna Buddhism is a figure known as the bodhisattva, who is said to develop these two primary virtues of wisdom, understanding the nature of reality and self in the deepest way, and compassion, compassion for all suffering beings.
They make a vow and they embark on this bodhisattva path. “I make a vow to attain this ultimate enlightenment for the sake of all beings.” So their motivation is to achieve this ultimate realization and gain this wisdom and ability to teach and help other beings along the path. That’s sort of the positive virtue. The Dalai Lama himself is sort of considered to be a bodhisattva.
Often, it’s funny you say that, because I show, when I’m talking about basic Buddhist teachings early with my students, and I talk about the nature of suffering, right, and so forth. I say, “I just want to show you a clip of the Dalai Lama,” and he’s laughing, right, engaging the audience in a very sort of light way. What this notion, you know Buddhism sort of claims, everything is suffering. All is subah dukan. All is suffering.
It seems like a fairly morose sort of take on life and world view, but in reality what I think it leads to is kind of a lightness of being, a kind of understanding of the impermanent nature of life. It actually is a paradox in how it sort of seems like it’s kind of down and negative, and in fact that’s how many Christian missionaries initially understood the Buddhist teachings, but it ends up being something that kind of leads to kind of a lightness, kind of going with the flow in life, and not clinging so much with these things.
How compatible are Eastern and Western concepts of the person or individual?
In terms of the Hindu tradition, I think this is less of, and there’s sort of an affirmation of personhood, something that we might call a soul, right, and this notion of an atman, but in the Buddhist tradition, there is this difficult to understand concept called the Doctrine of No Self. The Doctrine of Anatman, so in the Uponishads I was talking about how they’re kind of postulating this eternal essence within every Ascension being that’s anatman, and Buddhism is saying no atman, so Buddhism is denying an eternal essence.
But what Buddhism is not denying is that you exist, for example. It’s not denying personhood. It’s just getting you to sort of look at yourself and see yourself more as a process, right. The Buddha broke down a person into various constituent parts from you know, the body, thoughts, feelings, consciousness, memories, right, broke it down and basically is asking where in all of that collection of things that make up a person is there something that’s unchanging, that’s eternal. He basically sort of asserted there isn’t, but he’s not denying that there is something you, Doug, that kind of was born at a certain time, and that now you sort of inherit certain characteristics of when you were one year old and so forth. It’s not denying that there’s some continuity for you as a person. It’s just undermining this notion that you’re going to cling to me as I, special, distinct, separate from everything else.
It’s emphasizing, what Buddhism tends to emphasize more, is that you’re fundamentally interrelated to everything else, what’s known as the doctrine of dependent origination, that everything about you is dependent on an infinite number of causes and conditions. And that to see yourself in that way, to understand yourself as more like a process, not to deny that you exist, but to see yourself as a process fundamentally interrelated with all things naturally engenders compassion for other beings, because you see your relationship and connection to them.
So the Buddhist critique of some sort of Western notions of the individual and the enlightenment that we are autonomous, separate beings, actually they would say that feeds egotistical sort of ways of being in the world, selfish ways that I’m trying to affirm my superiority to others and collect more stuff and et cetera, et cetera.
I would content that there is a similar mood being made even within the Christian and Jewish tradition, that there is an effort in the teachings of Jesus to kind of diminish the ego and the self-centeredness, and to kind of identify with what Richard Rohr is sort of now writing about called The Christ Consciousness, something that… It’s a fascinating book, I think, that he’s writing. Franciscan, you know, Catholic priest, but writing about this presence of something that transcends our individuality that is, in a sense, the essence of who Jesus was. And that if you understand that, that it naturally leads you to be a sort of more compassionate, loving human being, and less selfish. I think there’s a compatibility there.
How compatible are the Eastern and Western concepts of God – the Divine?
In terms of conceptions of ultimacy, yes. I think they’re sort of right in the book. If we’re talking about the notion of Brahman within the Hindu tradition, or the notion of dependent origination, or nirvana, or emptiness in the Buddhist tradition, these are in clear tension with, what I would call, classical theism in the Christian tradition. This notion of God is a being, sort of separate, transcendent, all-knowing, all-powerful, unchanging, unaffected by the rest of the world.
I mean, I personally find that model of God, and it is but one of several that thread their way through the Christian tradition, but that model of God is problematic with everything we know about the world today, and it… So at any rate, but if you, sort of I do in the book, if you look at the development of Christian theology, and in particular what I would call process theologians, various theologians Paul Tillich, ground of being theologians, you get at something that is beginning to look more like this notion of fundamental interrelationship of all things, or Brahman or something. You begin to see some parallels there, I would sort of argue.
And so I think that’s why at the end of the book, I’m sort of moving toward, you know, sort of a process metaphysic you might say, that God is… In Richard Rohr’s book that I’ve just been reading lately, it’s called “Universal Christ Consciousness” or something like that, he is essentially arguing for what I would call a panentheistic conception of God, that God is part of everything, that God is in everything, but the God goes beyond just that which we perceive.
It’s fascinating, but when you get to that point, the distinctions and the tension between these conceptions I think is less than it appears.
Brief Comments about Islam and Allah
The only thing I would say about Islam is it probably carries the sort of monotheistic ideal of Judaism and Christianity to its logical conclusion. I mean, it’s conception of God, of Allah, is where you would sort of end up going. It’s not idolatrous, right, it is something beyond words and language. It carries those traditions to their sort of logical conclusion in some ways.
What is modernism and postmodernism?
So, modernity and modernism, these terms, and post-modernism have different terms and meanings in different fields, and so they actually have a lot to do with the field of arts and literature and so forth. But in terms of philosophy and religious studies, when I’m talking about modernity, I’m talking about sort of the byproduct of the Enlightenment, and this understanding of the individual as this sort of autonomous being with free will, Descartes and so forth.
This idea that rational sort of thought and scientific study can in essence sort of determine all of the answers, can figure it out and create systems, right, that we can study history and understand it objectively, right? That we can discern truths and kind of discern this kind of positivistic sort of expectation that we can figure it all out and create systems. Ultimately, the claim that religion will become obsolete, because we will sort of answer all the questions that religion has pretended to offer.
What happens with the postmodern movement is to kind of to show that those kind of optimistic ideas that we can sort of figure it all out through a rational thinking process, or that the individual is this autonomous thing of free will. What we see is that those are more constructions, human constructions, so the various systems that we create to kind of figure this out, we think we can sort of, right, understand history and write history, but invariably history is imbued with our own sort of biases. The winners write history kind of thing, so that we cannot know history objectively.
If any historical account is going to be in some way sort of biased by our own sort of perspective, or we can think of various philosophical systems. What postmodernism, deconstruct, showing how these notions of gender, of race, right, that we thought kind of figure it out, some kind of hierarchy and so forth, are actually our own constructions.
What postmodernism will do is deconstructing those constructions that we thought were somehow capturing reality itself. Does that make sense?
The problem, and I agree with Mark Taylor on this, the problem with that postmodern sort of tactic in deconstructing in showing how all of these historical accounts, these understandings of the difference between gender, of racial differences and so forth, how these have served certain groups of power over others and so forth.
The problem with that deconstruction process, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It leaves us, like okay, everything is sort of… it relativizes everything or it tends to. That’s the issue. I don’t know if that clearly answers your question.
What is Mark Taylor’s thesis in “After God”?
It does. Let me just ask you, how would you state his thesis if you can, and I forgot-
Mark Taylor’s thesis and “After God,” and what do you think of it? That’s a direct question.
So, I think…
I know that’s like asking you about TDQ. “I can’t just give you one sentence, Doug, sorry.”
So, I know, that’s an incredibly sort of complex book, but one thing he is doing in that book is showing how religions are… The way he defines religion, is that religion both sort of constructs symbolic systems of meaning and that’s important, so he’s in a sense affirming the importance of religion in the history of humanity, that it provides a sort of…
But also, he says, religion at the same time is also deconstructing, that religion goes through sort of a process constructing, and then deconstructing. An example of that would be someone like, Martin Luther, right, who is in a sense creating a new sort of vision of Christianity, Protestantism. At the same time he is critiquing and deconstructing Catholicism.
What he sort of talks about is that religions are always doing that, so in a sense the reason I like Taylor to some extent in what I’m doing in “The Divine Quest” is because he is verifying exactly what I’m talking about, that religions are always in this process of evolution and adapting to new social, scientific, economic, political contexts, that religions are always evolving in that sense. That’s the danger going back to reification, that we think religions are one thing and stay one thing, then we’re missing the whole sort of adaptive process, and that that adaptive process is not necessarily something that’s bad.
So what Taylor is doing is creating a definition of religion that sort of shows how religion both constructs in that way, but also at the same time deconstructs, and that’s sort of a natural sort of process, not necessarily something bad.
After God, he is deconstructing, in a sense, or receive sort of classical theistic understanding of God. But at the same time in that book, he is constructing or offering another kind of vision of God. It is quite different in some ways, but that’s precisely what he’s trying to do in the book. By and large, his theology I find pretty convincing.
Well, I want to say just to you as a friend, I’m 50 more pages, and so much of what he says I have thought about and haven’t read anywhere else. He writes so clearly. His summaries are excellent. I think it’s… He also is deconstructing postmodernism too, and nobody’s safe in that scenario.
What problems do you see with traditional Judaism or Christianity? Solutions?
Well, the biggest issue for me personally within my Christian tradition is, well let me put it this way, so there’s a scholar by the name of Justo Gonzalez who writes sort of an introductory Christian theology book. In it, he identifies three strands of theology within the Christian tradition. I think the first one is Tertullian, who basically sort of a vision of God is this kind of ultimate being, of law, of punishment, of original sin, of atonement.
Another, I think, maybe Irenaeus is basically sort of talking about God as more like a sort of shepherd, the human condition as one of bondage, and of salvation as something like liberation. He’s contrasting these different sort of theologies, and he follows them through history in the Christian tradition.
The first one is 90% of Christian history. It’s the dominant vision of God, this what I call classical theistic understanding of God, and the fundamental human problem of being one of sin and alienation from God, and therefore this notion of atonement in the necessary sacrifice of Jesus.
I personally find that theology problematic. It’s a conception of God that God sacrifices, literally, his own son, right. To me, it just doesn’t resonate. Let me just put it that way. And so it was helpful to me in going to Vanderbilt Divinity School, because at that point I’d been traveling all over the world and I’d sort of encounter… I was as far from my Christian faith as I’d ever been. It was encouraging to me to go to Vanderbilt and discover that there’s this whole tradition of theologians going at least back to Tillich, if not before, who were offering a different theology that I find resonated much more with the world I lived in and my understanding of human beings and so forth. Atonement theology is one that, if I could sort of drop that from my Christian tradition, I would. I don’t find it resonates very much.
And so this idea of what I tend to sort of like the social gospel that focus on the teachings of Jesus and not necessarily the person and death of Jesus, but more on what is it Jesus, if truly this was the presence of God amongst us, then surely wouldn’t his words mean something to us, and what he has to sort of teach about how we should be living with one another in today in the world. And so the social gospel is something that I’m sort of drawn to, and the reason we joined the church we joined here in Winston-Salem was precisely because the minister there sort of preached this social gospel.
So, I don’t know if that answers your question, but that… It gets at a different sort of notion of God. I’m drawn to Tillich and certainly process theology. This idea that God is sort of embedded in this world that we’re in, and that God is part of this world, and the fact this sort of divine aspects, and that God is in fact part of this process of evolution. That to me sort of resonates with my experience.
I would just conclude by saying that you know, in the Buddhist tradition, there is this notion of the fundamental interdependence of all things, I’ve sort of talked about that, that everything is fundamentally interrelated. To me, there’s a theology in that. To me, there is a theology in if one could truly realize the fundamental interrelationship of all things, it would sort of, and this is a sort of Buddhist, it would naturally draw you toward goodness, righteousness, compassion, justice. That there is something in that for my own sort of simple way of thinking about God, that God is something like that, that God is that which is drawing us toward what I think is good, righteous, just, compassionate, right. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there’s a theology in that.
No, that makes a lot of sense.
There’s a theology in that, and I think that’s what process theology is getting at, to kind of conceptualize God is not as some transcendent being separate and apart from this world, but as fundamentally in and part of this world, and part of this process. That conception of God to me resonates a lot more than that sort of classical theistic version.
I frankly think the reason some people sort of are turning away from the church is because that classical sort of image, which is embedded in all of the liturgy and many of the hymns, right, and many of the narratives, it just doesn’t resonate with their experience of reality as we know it.
Do you believe in a creator god?
So the question about creation is kind of a fascinating one. I would sort of say I kind of fall back to sort of a Buddhist response to that is it’s beyond our understanding. Like, to understand how this universe of 13.8 billion years and whatever it is estimated now began and came into being, is beyond my comprehension. But what I can say of the creation that we know, there is this sort of creative sort of inherent creative energy and force.
For me to sort of say that’s what I think sort of God is. Whatever it is that’s pulling the universe toward creativity and toward the creation of life and the arising of consciousness and so forth, that to me, whatever it is that’s pulling toward that, I can sort of say that’s kind of what I think of as God, if that makes sense.
However this universe came into being, I just can’t even speculate on that one. I think it’s… And it’s interesting, the Buddha, when he was asked these questions, “How did the world begin? How does it end?” He just says, “Those are questions not leading to edification.” That is to say, “I’m trying to deal with the problem right here and now in suffering human beings, and that’s what I’m dealing with, and to speculate on these questions of origin and destiny, it’s just not worth it.”
Is the secularization thesis dead? Berger and Taylor
Yes. I would agree. The secularization thesis, I think, is dead. I don’t know if, well, I’ll just say this, so Berger when he wrote “The Sacred Canopy,” the whole premise of that book is that we were gravitating toward a completely secular society, and that secular society would function in the same way that the sacred canopy does, you know, in earlier traditions. Subsequent to that, he basically said, “I was wrong.”
Jay Ford: So, there was the expectation among lots of social scientists that religion would eventually disappear. This is kind of the modernist sort of belief. And clearly, it’s not. There’s still this quest for understanding something that transcends our existence, experience in the here and now. I think that will persist.
What does this say about humanity?
Well, I don’t know what it says about the existence of God, but again, to me, that question is imposing it strictly from a Western perspective, right? But the persistence of this kind of spiritual quest, I think, is what we were talking about earlier in terms of the quest for the ultimate, or the divine quest, right? It is in the nature of humans to find this kind of sort of ultimate meaning that informs our purpose and so forth. Something that kind of transcends our sort of immediate experience and what we see, and that sort of thing, and that, I think, that quest, that hunger, thirst, whatever you want to call it, will always be there.
Isn’t understanding ultimate reality and its consequences a must for human beings?
So, I would broaden that to say that… I’m taking this side, but I want to say this at some point. This idea that studying religious traditions, and I would include philosophy in this as well, is sort of imperative for us to understand how these different traditions developed, to understand that they are in a sense their own sort of distinct systems.
I’ll give you an example of something I talk about to my students. So I have my students read wonderful article by a guy named Barre Toelken called “Seeing with the Native Eye.” He’s an anthropologist, and he’s describing his experience of living with a Navajo tribe for over a year. Basically he realizes part of the way through this, that they are seeing and experiencing reality in a way that he was not. There were certain things, and when he was trying to impose his own, what he calls programmed way of seeing the world, we’re talking about world views here, that he was missing what was important for these Native Americans.
The whole point of the article is that we all come in a sense with some programmed way of sort of seeing and understanding and comprehending the world, our experience, and so forth, and that if we enter into another culture, and then we impose our own programmed way of understanding the world, then we’re going to miss much of what is sort of important to that particular culture, and we may misinterpret much of what we see. That’s sort of the point of his article.
I offer this example of… This was in, I think, 2010 when Tiger Woods was having his major issues, and Brit Hume was on one these sort of talk panels on Fox News or something like that, and he basically says something to the effect of, “Well that religion,” because he was assuming Tiger Woods is Buddhist, “That religion doesn’t offer the atonement of forgiveness and compassion,” or something like that, “That Christianity offers.” I ended up writing an opinion piece about that because this relates to your question in the sense that I think it’s important for us to learn how to sort of see, encounter, experience other cultures, other world views in a way that doesn’t distort them. That’s actually an acquired skill.
It’s natural for us to sort of impose our own assumptions about the nature of reality or religion or whatever it might be onto another culture. What Brit Hume seems to be doing there is sort of I mean, I wrote this opinion piece and I essentially said, “You know, it’s sort of like somebody who’s a strong advocate, loves football saying, ‘You know what? Basketball is inferior because you can’t score touchdowns in basketball.'” Right?
It’s like sports we can sort of understand are different systems. They have different rules. They have different words. They have different goals, right, and orientations, and that sort of thing. Religions are similar. Cultures are similar. And so if we take our own sort of rubric and impose it or judge another culture by that measure, we are going to miss something, so the idea in religious studies classes is for a student to study a culture, even a time period of their own tradition, maybe, that they’re not familiar with, and be aware of their own sort of biases and tendencies to impose their own sort of programmed way of seeing the world onto this particular.
Well, I don’t understand. Why would they do that? Why don’t they… So Brit Hume is basically saying, “You know, we have the category of atonement, of this notion of sin, of alienation from God. They don’t have that.” Well, that’s true. Buddhism doesn’t have that structure because it doesn’t have this creator deity from which we’re alienated and so forth, but that doesn’t mean that Buddhism doesn’t have something very profound to say about Tiger Woods’ problem, right? About what led him to that sort of you know, that juncture.
So all of that is to say the reason I think sort of religious studies is important is because you actually acquire that skill of being able to first be aware of your own conscious bias, your own programmed way of seeing the world, and then enter into another world and try to understand it on its own terms without trying to sort of impose your own sort of understanding or distort it in any way.
Dialogue about “Praxis Circle” Name
I do want to ask you just what you think about, you know, our name Praxis Circle. I’ve never asked anyone this, but Praxis is a word that came out of mostly Catholic and Marxist thinking, you know? They both employed it in the Western tradition. I don’t know about anywhere else.
Liberation of theology, yep.
Where you have theory and you have reality, and they’re always interacting and they’re always changing each other. Simultaneously, one or the other or it’s the A equals B equals C, and it’s a really useful thing. People are in a circle together, and that’s what they do. They do it as individuals. They do it in groups. Is that a useful concept to you? It certainly seems to be you know, I don’t know if you have anything to say about it, but to me, it’s kind of what you all are talking about in a way.
Yup. I mean, I think we in the West, in particular, are sort of biased toward sort of concepts, ideas, theories, kind of you know, at the sort of cognitive level, but much of what we’re talking about in terms of religion is right at this sort of gut level. Where does the rubber meet the road? I mean, how do these concepts manifest in terms of actual practices and everyday lives of people and that sort of thing.
So yeah, I think of focus, in fact, the fundamental interrelationship between those two is sort of critically important to understand.
Has Christian interest in Eastern religions grown during your career?
Yes. I mean, it definitely has. I mean, I think this generation is one that’s sort of grown up in a more sort of global world, and so they’re kind of aware of sort of other cultures, perhaps, not that we aren’t, but and so their interest, I think, so that’s part of it. I think they are just sort of interested in the other in ways that previous generations may not have been so much.
And they’re sort of aware that there could be something to learn from the other. And I think part of it, I have to say, is you know, kind of a disillusionment with the primary tradition of most of our students, and that is Christianity. In fact, there’re now more Catholics than Baptists at Wake Forest.
But I think there is like some loss of interest. That’s, I’m not sure I can explain that, but I think their interest in kind of other ways of seeing, and in particular, sort of Asian sort of meditative, contemplative traditions. I think they have a real strong interest in that. So yeah.
Dialogue about Balanced Budget, Constitution, Nationhood
All righty. I hope you’ll answer some of this, but you may not want to, and May-Lily Lee did not. You know, issues like is balancing the budget important to you?
I’ll stay away from that one.
Stay away. What about the Constitution?
Or the nation.
Okay. So, the Constitution is important?
Okay. That’s a good answer. I can’t get you to expand? Okay. Nope, okay. So I assume if the Constitution is important to you, the nation is important to you?
How to think about religious talk in the public square?
So, there’s nothing prohibiting people from talking about their religion, right? I mean, it’s just a matter of whether they sort of impose it in particular public places or through forums and that sort of thing on others. Yeah. So I mean in terms of worldviews and religions, here again I think Asian religions can be somewhat instructive, so in the West we tend to think of religion in very exclusive terms. There could be various reasons for that. I mean, you know, to have one creator deity who is revealing God’s self at different places and different times is going to yield certain contradictions, right?
So, perhaps some of the greatest infighting religiously is between the three monotheistic traditions, or even within those monotheistic traditions. So there’s something that’s sort of about monotheism to me that’s sort of engenders a kind of exclusivism that kind of develops. That’s not the only reason, but it’s sort of a contributing factor.
In Asian religions, as that’s what I’ve noted, religiosity and understood in a very different way. It’s not a problem from a Buddhist perspective for me to practice Buddhism and Christianity, right? At a time, there was a time for Christians where they would say, “No. You can’t do that. That’s violating our sort of fundamental principles.”
In Asian religions there’s a sort of understanding, it relates to this worldview what I call sort of a metaphysical process or an organic metaphysic, right? They begin different from the West, they begin with this understanding that reality is a constant process. In Chinese religion, right, it’s this kind of waxing and waning of yin and yang. Everything is in process. Nothing stays the same.
In Buddhism, it’s the fundamental emphasis on interdependence, impermanence, and change. When you began with that understanding of reality, then it means that it’s important to understand your context, right. At certain times this may be appropriate. At other times it may be inappropriate. It means that everything is constantly changing. At certain times it may be completely okay to go to the Daoist temple and do something there.
At other times it may be appropriate to go to the Confucian temple and do something there. At other times it may be appropriate to go to the Buddhist. Their sort of notion that things are in process, so you can’t fix this, is the only way to do something. They tend not to be that sort of way.
So, there is a kind of fluidity. Now, you might sort of say, “Yeah, but that’s complete relativism.” I don’t think that’s what they’re arguing. It’s not that any way is as good as any other. They’re not arguing that. But what they are sort of saying is that you need to pay attention to context, to understand what is appropriate in that particular place in time. You can make certain sort of claims that killing Ascension beings is wrong, but generally there is sort of… And we in the West don’t really have that sort of understanding of what is proper, right, you know.
Even in the Chinese context, what might be good at one place in time, might be evil in another place in time. The notion of yen and yong within Chinese religion is not an ethical dualism. It’s not that one is good and one is evil, it’s the idea that there’s constantly sort of changing, and that one has to understand one’s place to understand what is appropriate, if that makes sense.
Dialogue about the Secular Public Square
It does, but I think there’s a distinction that you have to draw between thinking and acting.
And in the Western sense, freedom of religion is you’re free to think and act your religion. Even if you’re a Buddhist and you’re a Hindu, some version, and you think and act in the public square, you are in essence violating the rights of, say, and atheist in France.
Oh, in France, okay.
If your behavior is endorsing a religion, you are creating a problem, and so you could use the bake the cake example.
But that wouldn’t be the case in the U.S. You’re not making that assertion.
It could. It’s getting there in a lot of ways, and so I would argue it’s not necessarily the Christian that’s the problem, it’s the atheists that’s the problem, that’s insisting on a totally secular public square, enforcing everybody back into the hinterland, into your mind basically, and you’re not allowed to act on your own religion.
I can exaggerate to make points in all directions. I just wondered what have you thought about sort of taking out the Eastern part of it, but thinking maybe about how France does it versus how we do it.
Yeah, I just don’t feel like I’m informed enough to even sort of touch on that.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the U.S.?
I would put it that I’m hopeful. Part of it is this generation of students that I’m teaching. I think this generation is going to be sort of interesting to watch, because they’re very sort of engaged. They sort of grew up with much more sort of a group consciousness than I think we may have. But I think also, just whether you’re negative about what’s going on politically now or positive, it all goes in cycle is my sort of belief.
It’s not surprising to me that there may have been sort of a conservative backlash to Obama. It’s not surprising to me the changes we’re seeing with immigration is drawing some sort of lash back, but that over time this will sort of be resolved. I’m hopeful that we have a system that actually can sort of manage these kind of dynamic changes. Yeah, I’ll just leave it at that.
Thank you, my friend. Great job.
The Divine Quest, East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities:
Jōkei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan:
Wake Forest University:
Mike Gonzalez is a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he specializes in immigration and foreign policy issues. With a career spanning journalism and public policy, Gonzalez has made significant contributions to the conservative movement and American public discourse. He is author of "The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free" (2020) and "BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution" (2021).
Praxis Circle Contributor George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, New York Times bestselling author, and world-leading Catholic theologian. Mr. Weigel because he is among the most influential spokespersons for Christian orthodoxy and Western freedom in the world.
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