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Monday, February 2, 2015

Of Gods and Men (and Buddhas, too)

It seems that one of the most popular topics in Buddhist circles, at least when it comes to an attempt to place Buddhism within the broader spectrum of comparative religion, is whether or not the Buddha believed in a creator God. Now, I am certainly not qualified to provide an expert opinion on whether
or not the Buddha believed in a creator God. I am however qualified to present an expert opinion on what, precisely, a creator God might look like. I am constantly disappointed that those participating in these discussions seem to hold an extremely simplistic view of the God of Christianity, and along with it the God of Judaism and Islam. Again, I will confine my remarks to what I know, which is Christianity.

It seems that the God of these discussions is the God of fundamentalist Christianity, and that God can hardly be seen as representative of the broad spectrum of Christian understanding of God. In fact, it can hardly be seen as representative of anything but a minority view of God in Christianity. It is not a caricature of this vision of God, though this vision of God may be a caricature of God, to say that it posits and embody the God locked away in a workshop somewhere before the beginning of time. This so-called "Creator God" tinkers a way in this workshop until it has constructed the universe and everything within it. Such a view is prescientific, the stuff of myth and legend, and while myth and legend have a usefulness they do not provide us with a well-rounded picture of God in the twenty-first century.

The truth is that many contemporary Christians are not afraid of science and so do not choose to posit a God who looks more like Pinocchio's father than anything we might call the Ground of Being. On the other hand, these same contemporary Christians are not afraid to say there are things that we
cannot explain or describe with scientific accuracy and that still undeniably live, move, and have their being. I do not have to be able to explain how the internal combustion engine works in order to drive my car. I get in, turn the key, and off I go. I can say that I believe that the energy that is God was present at the Big Bang without feeling compelled to run off and earn an advanced degree in astrophysics so that I might defend my thesis. What is important to me are not theories about God, but rather my direct experience of God which is such that no one can explain it away. That is the nature of mystical experience, and the tradition in which that mystical experience occurs does not change that once a person has it they are no longer threatened by science. Science is now seen as an aid on the journey rather than as a threat to its successful completion.

Perhaps the question that needs to be asked of Buddhist scholars is not, "did the Buddha believe in a creator God?" A much better question, which admittedly is one that was never directly asked of the Buddha because in his time this perspective did not exist, would be whether the Buddha would have rejected a view of God that incorporates human knowledge in its fullness and diversity. While this conversation would undoubtedly be speculative, it seems to me that it would bear more fruit than asking if God was Pinocchio's father. Of course, this would also be a less satisfying question for a dedicated atheist to ask. It seems to me the dedicated atheists prefer to ask questions about God and views of God that are little more than caricatures of the visions of an earlier time. While such questions may make them feel superior, in fact they contribute little to the discussion.

I suppose the truth is that I am extremely bored with discussions and articles about discussions regarding the Buddha's understanding of God. I do not believe they are productive in the sense of advancing our understanding of either the Buddha or of God. They more resemble distractions along the way, distractions from the Path, and while we might entertain them for a while I believe we must ultimately move beyond them if it is our wish to draw closer to the truth.

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