Christian faith watered down? – July 2011

Question: When Christians adopt beliefs from other traditions, does this water down their Christian faith?

Publication Month: July 2011

My answer is, of course, that this depends on what beliefs are adopted. There are beliefs in other traditions that certainly “water down” Christianity. For example, in some Jewish traditions Jesus is viewed as a false claimant to being Messiah. Adopting that belief in an unqualified way would water down one’s Christianity. Some Buddhists quite flatly assert that there is no God. To adopt that view flatly would water down one’s Christianity.

But you will notice that I have had to present even these apparently anti-Christian views carefully in order to have clear examples of the negative effects of adopting the beliefs of other traditions. If we adopt, from careful Jewish scholarship, the view that Jesus did not fulfill the messianic role, we do not necessarily water down our Christian faith. It has been a widespread part of Christian self-understanding that Jesus rejected the standard notion of what the Messiah would be and do. For this reason, the question of whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah has been debated by Christians. If Christians nevertheless declare that he was the “anointed one,” it is only by redefining the role of the “anointed one” to fit what Jesus actually did. If a Christian decided that it is better to allow Jews to define Messiahship and then agreed that Jesus was not the Messiah, that might be an advance in clarity and precision rather than a watering down of faith. It might make clearer what Jesus did not do.

There could be an argument about the relative importance of what a Jewish Messiah would have done and what Jesus in fact did. If one concluded that the work of a Jewish Messiah would have been far more valuable, then one’s Christian faith would indeed be watered down. But that is quite different from abandoning the claim that Jesus was the Messiah or Christ.

What now about the second test, being persuaded by the Buddhist teaching that there is no God? Would that not water down one’s Christian faith a great deal? Perhaps, but the initial question should be: What is denied in the Buddhist denial of the existence of God? The early Christians were accused of atheism because they denied the existence of so many gods.

Some Buddhists today deny that anything Christians might mean by “God,” or “Creator,” or “Spirit,” or “Abba” exists, and accepting their teaching would be a great watering down of Christian faith. But one can appreciate the rejection of deity by early Buddhist without drawing these conclusions. The early teaching was not directed against Christian beliefs. Their critique was of Hindu ideas. In general Buddhists rejected the widespread belief of Hindus in Brahman. Brahman is much like the medieval understanding of esse ipsum (Being Itself) that has often been identified with God in subsequent Christian theology but has a very tenuous relation to the Abba to whom Jesus prayed. Brahman functions as the one substance underlying all particular things, and Buddhists opposed the idea of substance. This denial is disturbing to many Christians, who do think of themselves, the objects of sense experience, and God as “substances.” But we process theologians agree with the Buddhist critique of substance, and we do not see that this separates us from biblical faith.

Buddhists differed in their treatment of the many Hindu gods. Some flatly denied their existence; others urged that one not be concerned about them. Progress toward enlightenment was blocked by attention to this sphere of reality. There is no need for Christians to reject Buddhist teaching on this point either. On the other hand, if denying “God” meant to Christians that there is nothing beyond and above ourselves to which to direct our loyalty, nothing to turn to in prayer, nothing to trust, then agreeing with Buddhists would indeed water down Christian faith.

These examples are of negative teachings. Suppose now that we take a positive teaching of Islam as a test: Mohammed is the prophet of God. If Christians were persuaded of that teaching would that water down their faith? Again, it depends. To affirm that Mohammed is prophet certainly need not water down Christian faith. Even to judge by his impact on society and world history that Mohammed was the greatest prophet would leave faith intact. Even among Muslims there are those who hold together a very high view of Jesus with the standard affirmations of Islam about Mohammed’s role.

If a Christian bases Christology on the affirmation of Jesus as “the supreme prophet,” then, of course, the Muslim doctrine is a direct rejection of Christian teaching. But the prophetic tradition can be so understood that Jesus is not primarily to be understood as one figure in this tradition. If Jesus is understood, instead, primarily in the category of incarnation, for example, then affirming Mohammed as the greatest of the prophets is a legitimate, open question for a Christian, even if it might be impossible for a Jew. Distinguishing Jesus from the prophets could even sharpen and clarify Christian claims. The weakening of Christian faith would only come if one also came to believe that the status of “prophet” was a higher one, such that one should follow the greatest of the prophets rather than the one in whom God’s presence was most fully manifest. Clearly that is a quite different judgment.

Basically, to be authentically Christian is to be Christocentric. That can take many forms, and Christians can argue passionately as to whether the center is the life and teaching of Jesus, the apostolic witness to Jesus, the cross as effecting atonement, the resurrection as demonstrating a unique relation to God, or incarnation as presenting God to us in and through a human being.

To be Christocentric need not involve rejection of all the wisdom of other traditions, quite the contrary. But it does mean that this wisdom is appropriated from a Christocentric perspective. If the appropriation limits that perspective it waters down Christian faith. For example, many Christians practice and greatly appreciate Hindu or Buddhist forms of meditation. They find that this enables them to be better Christians. But if they judge that the goals of that meditation as understood in these other traditions are of primary importance and that one should judge faithfulness to Christ from that perspective, then they have at least watered down Christianity. To follow Christ only in so far as doing so fulfill ends derived elsewhere, however admirable these ends may be, is to water down Christian faith.

To say this is not to make a neutral judgment with respect to alternative foci or perspectives. I myself greatly prefer some forms of Buddhism to some forms of Christianity. But even that preference is determined for me by my own Christocentrism. I value and evaluate the whole of the Abrahamic tradition from the perspective of a disciple of Jesus who understands God as God is revealed in him. Similarly I appraise the vast development of the Western secular world from that same perspective. And it is from that perspective that I have come to great appreciation of indigenous traditions and of Chinese and Indian ones. This is a confessional statement, not an assertion that it is the “right” perspective for everyone and should displace all others.

At the same time that I rejoice in a pluralistic world, I am glad to discuss the reasons that I find this perspective more illuminating and better directing human action than alternative perspectives with which I am familiar. In some comparisons I feel strongly about the damage done by other perspectives and argue against them passionately. For example, from my Christian perspective, as from many others, the economistic perspective that now dominates global affairs should be unequivocally condemned, however respectfully we should deal with those who promote and act upon it. On the other hand, there are other comparisons where admiration and appreciation are primary, and even though I continue to value them from my Christian perspective and to treasure the capacity of that perspective to appreciate them, I would bring up my sense of the special advantages of Christianity only secondarily, recognizing that one can also cite advantages in the other perspective. Acknowledging their great value in no way waters down my own Christian faith. Instead it strengthens my appreciation of what is distinctive in my own perspective.