NOT MUCH HAD CHANGED in the thirty years since I lived in a college dormitory. The cafeteria was still a tangle of formica-topped folding tables. There were still giant bins of Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs and a mess of dishes piling up on racks outside the kitchen. The custom-made omelet was a new touch, and there was never a Starbucks down the hall when I went to college. But the real difference this time was the company. Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon, is a thriving school of about 750 undergraduate and graduate students committed to a life of Christian evangelism. As a representative of nearby Dharma Rain Zen Center, on campus to attend a conference, I found myself explaining to a professor and a few students the meaning of the rakusu, the vestment I wear as a senior disciple in my lineage. I tried to explain, anyway, and they tried to understand. And little by little, we moved toward each other.
What is usually called Buddhist-Christian dialogue began in a shared respect for contemplative life regardless of social and religious beliefs. Over time, these dialogues evolved into gatherings of politically homogeneous people, well-meaning but awkward efforts to find common theological ground where little or none exists. (For some people, this has extended as far as calling oneself a “Buddhist Christian,” or a “Christian Buddhist.”) I was never much interested in such a conversation. I feel pain and anger about the world that is based in our differences—theological, political, and social. That pain and anger, in turn, widens the differences between us. Fixing the separations between us begins not with talking about where we agree, but facing all the ways we do not, cannot, agree. It begins—and perhaps remains—with discomfort.
Several years ago, Kyogen Carlson, my teacher and the abbot of Dharma Rain Zen Center, became concerned with finding a way to talk about civic issues as a component of his practice. “I wanted a dialogue on things that were difficult,” he remembers. He accepted an invitation to join the Values-Based Initiative, a set of community “dialogue circles” sponsored by the National Council for Community and Justice (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews). There he met an unusual man named Paul Metzger. Paul is a self-described conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Christian, and an associate professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at the Multnomah Seminary.
“I like the word ‘orthodox’ better than the word ‘conservative,'” he says. “I find it hard to call myself a conservative because of the negative connotations.” One of Paul’s concerns is the significant difference between “theological conservatism” and the conservative politics with which it is usually associated. He mentions Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. “We agree on basic doctrine,” but it stops there. He adds, “It’s shameful to me, some of what they say.” Historically, conservative Christianity was involved in issues of social justice, but it began withdrawing from the mainstream of social activism in the early twentieth century—partly due to the rise of liberal Christianity in that arena, and partly due to a fear that it was a distraction from the evangelical’s primary work, which is saving souls. Conservative Christians today fear, in Paul’s words, the “taint” of being labeled liberal, and his peers worry that he might lose sight of his mission. But Paul disagrees, and talks of “theopolitical engagement,” peppering his speech with references to people like the civil rights activist John M. Perkins and former President Jimmy Carter.
Eventually, Paul began bringing his World Religions classes to meet Kyogen in the zendo as part of their exposure to different religious traditions. Last winter, around the time of Bush’s second inauguration, Kyogen found himself counseling a number of people feeling “anguish and distress” over the political climate. He invited Paul to speak to our sangha and present a different view of conservatism. The following summer, Kyogen spoke to the Bible College student body about the regrets he felt from his own activist past, and about the fears people have of conservative Christianity. “I found his words meaningful and profound,” Paul remembers. Over a period of years, they have found that their vast differences of worldview, political beliefs, and religious practice don’t get in the way of their friendship—at times, the very differences spark conversation and respect.
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