WHAT DO YOU SAY to a fundamentalist Christian who’s certain you’re on the fast track to hell? Keep in mind she may be wondering what to say to you, too, since she knows you probably think she’s impenetrably ignorant. And yet the two of you very likely have no trouble being polite to each another in the checkout line at the local supermarket. Why go further than a simple hello and a strained smile?
To tell you the truth, I’ve wondered this myself. I’ve been to interfaith dialogues that have devolved into group hugs and sentimental contentions that we’re all talking about the same thing (I suspect we may not be). Usually I leave dissatisfied, muttering under my breath.
But I suppose I’m part of the problem, and when contributing editor Sallie Tisdale told me that Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, was in dialogue with local fundamentalist Christians (see “Beloved Community”), I was skeptical. As one Zen Center member asked, “What’s the point? We’re never going to agree.” And with all the legislative and juridical efforts to reshape society in recent years—often at the instigation of the Christian right—I’ve had my gloves off for quite a while.
I know, not very Buddhist. Nonetheless, I figured if Tisdale was optimistic, it was only right to listen. To my great surprise, the two groups were willing to focus on their differences rather than engage in a forced effort to find common ground. And as far as I could tell, Zen Center’s Kyogen Carlson and evangelical professor of Christian theology Paul Metzger seemed more interested in finding a way to live with fundamental differences than in overcoming them.
True, Metzger is not the fundamentalist Christian we’re used to hearing. With regard to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, he says, “We agree on basic doctrine, but it stops there. It’s shameful to me, some of what they say.” And perhaps more unexpectedly, he conjectures, “If I weren’t a follower of Jesus, I’d probably be a Buddhist.” Still, Metzger is solidly in the fundamentalist camp: “Given how supreme the person of Jesus is—his person, his claims, his call—anything that would detract from that is delusional.”
For Kyogen’s part, he regrets shouting down speech he didn’t agree with while studying at UC Berkeley in the sixties. The efforts of the two groups, he feels, is a step forward, in spite of some misgivings within his own community. Kyogen and Metzger have agreed to disagree and remain friends.
WHAT, THEN, DOES IT TAKE to agree to disagree without the self-righteous impulse to bring others around? For contributing editor Clark Strand, faith is the answer: “People who go deeply enough into their own faith to be truly transformed by it are comfortable with that faith and feel no need to convince others of it,” he told me recently. In “Born Again Buddhist,” Strand describes a faith he feels comfortable comparing to the evangelical’s: “I see no need to make a distinction, to set myself on one side and them on the other,” he says. “No one holds the a patent on infinite light and life.”
So it seems that in this issue we come full circle, and I may yet be convinced that we are talking about the same thing after all. But Strand’s piece will likely raise hackles among some Western Buddhists, whose meditation-centered practices, like my own, will leave them with plenty to sit about.
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