Liberal and Conservative Religion

Modernity, as we call it, has been presenting spiritually inclined people with some real challenges.Those of us with a liberal leaning tend to look with a bit of disdain at conservative American Christians who are made uncomfortable with some aspects of the modern world. A recent Pew survey found that one third of Americans believe that the world was created in six days. We might shake our heads at what we consider such nonsense, but then again, since such views are deeply entrenched in the minds of numbers of our local, state and federal officials and direct many of their decisions about policy and the allocation of resources, nonsense hardly seems the right word.

We wonder, how can these people look back to scriptures compiled by archaic peoples and view such books as inerrant and literal truths about anything? We are mystified and shocked by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and its reintroduction of Quranic punishments and social arrangements. What do we make of a revolutionary movement which claims to draw its legitimacy as a government from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being the Caliph?

Is something shared in what drives all these people to look to the past for their values? I suspect it is in a recognition that modernity, as a pattern of social arrangements and values, lacks any direction beyond self-satisfaction, and that such a life is arid in some way. Conservatives respond to this aridity by turning to the values and authorities of the past. To we liberals, those past values and authorities seems archaic and we reject their authoritarian certitudes. For similar reasons, we reject modern religion. So if we have some "spiritual" inclination and seek freedom from the aridity of modernity, though not from the blessings of modernity, we find ourselves trying to reach for the Holy in a manner unconstrained by authority or dogma.

In my lifetime I have sought an alternative to this aridity, or alienation as psychologists used to say in the 1950s, by embracing Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It is not that I have rejected modernity -- I accept the views of Physics, Evolutionary Biology, etc., and the Enlightenment traditions upon which the USA was founded  -- but find that another dimension is needed to make my life fulfilling and meaningful. I am not alone in this stance. 

Recently I have come to see that those of us who pursue this path run the risk of a conservatism or fundamentalism in disguise. We might reject the literal Muslim or Christian readings of their scriptures, but might consider the Buddhist sutras to be the literal word of Buddha and try to follow those teachings. If so, in what way are we any different from those fundamentalists that concern me? Do we seek authority to assist us in understanding the point of life, because it is just such a mystery? Or perhaps we don't even want assistance, we just want some insight, and perhaps this is what distinguishes us from each other?

At one time modern scholars of Buddhism looked at the history of Buddhist scriptures, commentaries and cultural practices and tried to figure out just what had the Buddha actually taught; as if the development of the religion over time might have included some sort of error or misdirection. Could we call this enterprise a sort of scholarly fundamentalist Buddhism?  

The alternative to any religious fundamentalism is to recognize that cultures and people develop over time, and that authentic religious or spiritual messages change to suit those times. Final truth is not locked in old scriptures. In fact truths might have a "shelf life", and what was true for preliterate or tribal peoples may not be true for us at all. Of course this leaves us having to interpret these teachings, to pick and choose what seems right for us, and in the end, depend on our own discrimination. And of course this is a problem as well, because if our discrimination was so wise we probably would not be looking for some spiritual path to compliment our modern lives! Fundamentalists, if they think about it at all, recognize their own proclivity to error, which is one reason they look to archaic authority. We liberal moderns run a grave risk when we depend on our own discrimination, but perhaps ultimately it is less of a risk than dependence on an archaic and tribal level of authority.

While I was in Dharamsala studying Nagarjuna's middle way philosophy with Geshe Sonam Rinchen, I had a unique opportunity to engage with this problem. I knew from scholarly friends such as Bob Thurman, who at the time was teaching at Amherst College, that the Dalai Lama was quite interested in western sciences. Here was an authority, a head of a religious lineage, who was quite interested in science, the quintessential aspect of modernity. He is in fact quite open minded, and in time would be known to say that if science and Buddhism were in conflict, and the scientific view on some subject could be proven beyond doubt, that the Buddhist teaching on the subject should be dropped.

But that would be later.This was 1982 and 1983. Being a bit bold, I tried to arrange a meeting with him on a subject close to my heart: the intersection of Buddhism and Psychotherapy. It turned out he also was interested in such a conversation, and agreed to met with me several times. I recorded the conversations and they were published as two articles in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.

1981 (source: CNN)

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