Christianity and Buddhism, Genesis versus Science.
Christian Fundamentalists still hanker after the truth of Genesis, whereas Buddhists are happy to accept scientific explanations for the origin of the Universe.
Nowadays there are many positive and fruitful interactions taking place between Christianity and Buddhism. To quote Wayne Teasdale:
'The British historian Arnold Toynbee once remarked to a Buddhist thinker, Daisaku Ikeda, that the most significant event of our period in history is the meeting between Buddhism and Christianity. These prophetic words are often quoted in various forums around the world devoted to the encounter between these two venerable traditions. These two traditions are so different that this is a momentous suggestion. If Christianity can be taken as representative of all theistic traditions, and it is related creatively and fruitfully with Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, and somehow their differences can be reconciled, then all the faiths can similarly be brought into harmony. If they can maintain their mutual openness, trust, and respect in dialogue in the decades ahead, such a breakthrough will become a reality'.
Fortunately, most of the dialog currently taking place between modern liberal Christianity and the various schools of Buddhism does indeed appear to be based on openness and respect. Liberal Christianity, like Buddhism, is far more concerned with compassion than punishment of sin.
However, there are two powerful Christian denominations where this is not the case. Their attitude to Buddhism is one of evangelism and missiology, which appears to be based on cultural imperialism and a degree of disparagement verging on contempt:
In short, Buddhism is all but dead. In its huge organism the faint pulsations of life are still discernible, but its power of activity is gone. The spread of European civilization over the East will inevitably bring about its extinction. - Catholic Encyclopedia
The divisive denominations are Evangelical Fundamentalism and of course Roman Catholicism. Both churches are actively attempting to convert Buddhists, particularly in former Marxist countries where the indigenous traditions have been weakened by persecution (for example Mongolia, Cambodia and Siberia).
Both churches are extremely well-funded and have powerful political influences. Both are attempting to evangelize the 10/40 Window which includes all the traditionally Buddhist cultures of the Far East.
'Why do committed Christians need to focus on The 10/40 Window? First, because of the historical and biblical significance of this part of the world. Indeed the Bible begins with the account of Adam and Eve placed by God in the heart of what is now The 10/40 Window. God's plan expressed in Genesis 1:26 was that mankind would have dominion over the earth, subduing it fully. However, Adam and Eve sinned against God and forfeited their right to rule.... With all of Southeast Asia, most of China and the Far East falling into the category of Buddhist, it is easy to see that this is the largest, most identifiable group in The 10/40 Window. The Buddhist world comprises more than 1 billion people who are in desperate need of Jesus Christ..' Luis Bush :
In order to defuse the potentially divisive influence of these exclusivist dogmas, it is necessary to examine their beliefs, especially where they are in conflict with Buddhist philosophy, modern science and in some cases where they are internally contradictory.
Fundamentalists believe in the absolute literal truth of The Bible. The universe was created in a single week eight thousand years ago (Young Earth doctrine) with all species created in their present form (Special Creation). Evolution is a pernicious lie propagated by secular humanists and should be removed from the school syllabus. The fossil record is a sham. Fossils were planted by Satan in order to undermine the faith of true believers. Dinosaurs never existed.
Fundamentalist objections to science go beyond the evolution/creationist debate. Other findings which the Young Earth doctrine rejects are:
Plate tectonics is the scientific study of earth movements, which proposes that the continents have not always had their present shapes and locations, but have gradually drifted over the course of millions of years. Many of these movements are still continuing. Where plates slide past one another they give rise to seismically active faults such as the San Andreas fault in California and the Great Glen of Scotland.
Dating by radioactive decay
When the current isotopic composition and rate of decay of radioactive isotopes in rocks is extrapolated backwards, many samples appear to be hundreds of millions of years old. The fundamentalist counter-argument is that the rate of decay was much higher in the early days of the earth. However, this implies that the backgound radiation immediately post-creation was hundreds of thousands of times what it is now, which would be severely damaging to the reproductive abilities of all creatures. Living in the Garden of Eden would be equivalent to sitting on top of Chernobyl.
Humans and our nearest primate relatives such as chimpanzees have over 98% of our genetic code in common. This is totally unnacceptable to Christian Fundamentalists and is explained as being a lie spread by secular humanism.
Many of the galaxies in the Universe are so far away that light has taken millions of years to travel from them. But according to Genesis, God created the stars after the earth, so in theory we shouldn't be able to see them. The Fundamentalist explanation is that God has constructed a vast planetarium surrounding the solar system, from which he projects the appearance of an old universe towards us in order to tempt sinners into disbelieving the Bible.
Calvinism and Evangelism
Christian Fundamentalism comes in two flavors - Calvinist and Evangelical. They differ with regard to the nature of their Gods. Calvinists believe that there is one God who is omniscient, omnipotent and exists outside time. As a result He already knows all events past and future. Therefore those who are damned to suffer eternal agony in hell are already damned at the moment of conception. Similarly with those who are saved.
God creates people in the full knowledge that they are bound to suffer enless unbearable pain. Obviously there is no place for compassion in Calvinism. There is nothing corresponding to the Mahayana ideal of an Enlightened Being pledged to rescue all sentient beings from a sea of suffering.
Fortunately this harsh and grim belief system is not evangelical and does not attempt to propagate itself. Obviously there's no point in trying to save souls by seeking converts when God has already decided who is damned and who is saved. Calvinists pose no threat to Buddhism because all Buddhists are predestined go to hell so there's no point in doing anything about it.
In Evangelical (as distinct from Calvinist) Fundamentalism there are two Gods - Jehovah and Satan - both are in competition to gather the most souls. Neither is omnipotent or omniscient. If either were omnipotent he would have zapped his adversary long ago. Similarly if either were omniscient he would long ago have been victorious because he would be able to know his enemy's every move in advance.
Evangelical fundamentalists believe that God reacts to events, so he is subject to time and cannot predict his own thoughts in advance. For example he can become angry with people and send floods to destroy them.
God created the world to be perfect, and in the beginning man and woman were perfect. But then Satan came along and persuaded them to eat an apple which gave them knowledge of Good and Evil. This is known as the Fall of Man and is the cause of Original Sin which is the foundation of Fundamentalist and Catholic teachings on evil, redemption, heaven and hell. Or, as the evangelists put it - 'The universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature since the fall, rendering humanity subject to God's wrath and condemnation'.
Because he has inherited Original Sin from Adam and Eve, man is doomed to go to hell. Only the One True Church can save him ('Extra ecclesiam nulla salus') .
But if the Fall of Man is viewed as nothing more than an ancient misogynist myth, then there is no such thing as Original Sin, and the whole vindictive, fear-driven, negative soteriology collapses. This explains why Fundamentalists and Catholics have severe problems with anything that calls into question the literal truth of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis.
How salvation is brought about is a matter of debate within the the various denominations. Some favor salvation by works, others salvation by faith, and yet others salvation by a bit of both.
Salvation by works consists of collecting Brownie points. Good deeds earn positive points, bad deeds negative ones. When you die your points are counted, and if you've got more positive than negative you go to heaven, if more negative than positive it's eternity in hell. If you've got exactly the same number of each they flip a coin.
Salvation by faith places more stress on what you believe than what you do. So if your denomination has, say, 39 articles of faith and you believe 20 and disbelieve 19 then you go up. But if you only believe 19 then you go down. The coin-flipping situation can be completely avoided by always having an odd number of articles of faith.
Most evangelicals emphasise salvation by faith rather than salvation by works.
Evangelism versus Buddhism
Evangelical dogma is diametrically opposed to Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism not only accepts evolution but actually requires it, as all things are seen as being transient with no permanent essence.
There is no fall from grace and no original sin in Buddhism. Evil is an adjective - not a noun. There are evil intentions, evil speech and evil acts, but there is no disembodied evil or personalised source of evil. An action is evil if it knowingly causes suffering to other sentient beings. The causes of individual evil acts are rooted in delusions such as hatred, attachment and ignorance which arise from the fact that our minds have spent millions of years in the bodies of animals (among other places). 'Nature red in tooth and claw' carries its imprints over into the human realm.
In Buddhism there is no devil who is continuously generating copious supplies of disembodied 'evil'. There is no need to believe in The One True Religion to be saved. Religious denominations are mere labels with no inherent existence. The spiritual progress of the mind from life to life is detemined by karmic imprints which cause it to be attracted to certain environments:
'Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.'
Christian Fundamentalism differs from Buddhism and most other forms of Christianity in that it does not accord much importance to compassion. Its mode of propagation is to exploit the fear of hell-fire and its theological justification is grounded in original sin.
The Buddhist's and liberal Christian's best defence against Fundamentalism is through realisation of its crudely memetic nature, and of the scientific implausibility of its intellectual basis in the doctrine of the Fall of Man:
Damnation or reincarnation?
It should also be emphasised that there is considerable doubt whether Jesus Christ taught eternal damnation. Modern evidence suggests that the fathers of the early church, like their Jewish counterparts, believed in gilgul or reincarnation. The doctrine of everlasting hell was introduced by the Imperial Roman government once the Christian church had become established as part of the empire's thought-control apparatus. The scriptures were edited to remove most (but not all) references to rebirth, and earlier once-respectable theologians such as Origen were denounced as heretics.
Also, if Jesus believed in eternal damnation, why did He not teach a clear way to avoid it? If he had done so, the controversies regarding whether salvation is through works or faith would not have continued for 2000 years.
So perhaps what the fundamentalists teach is not fundamentally Christian at all. Hellfire and brimstone may be a corruption of the original message - a politically inspired meme whose objectives are to exercise power through terror. Jesus may well have taught that the path to liberation was through cultivating minds of compassion. And if liberation could not be accomplished in one lifetime, further rebirths would be necessary.
If, as many Buddhists believe, Jesus was a Buddha or High Bodhisattva, then he could not possibly countenance doctrines of eternal damnation, for one of the main Bodhisattva vows is never to abandon any sentient being.
Although individual Catholics such as Thomas Merton have made valuable contributions to mutual understanding, the Church hierarchy views Buddhism with undisguised contempt.
Pope John Paul II in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope refers to Buddhism as negative soteriology (Presumably the Boddhisattva ideal is negative whereas Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is positive!).
More recently, Cardinal Ratzinger took the matter in hand with his seminal comment that Buddhism is autoerotic spirituality .
While these attitudes persist there can be little chance of progress in 'mutual openness, trust, and respect in dialog' between Buddhism and the Vatican establishment.
Christian versus Buddhist worldviews
If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?