This is the majestic Christ Church in Dublin, Ireland, one of many architectural treats from Europe’s Christian heritage that I enjoyed this summer. However, with so many European churches feeling more like museums than vibrant centers of community life, my trip to the U.K. also made me think more deeply about what needs to be done to revitalize the Christian faith.
Where have we gone wrong? That’s the question that came to me this summer in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I discovered that church attendance has dropped from 75% in 1900 to 3% now? This question only deepened as I then headed to Dublin, Ireland, a deeply rooted Catholic city in which cynicism of the church is rampant. An article in a Dublin newspaper during my stay announced that there will be not enough priests to fill local parish vacancies in the coming two or three years.
I ask this question with some distress, for the Christian community in my formative years gave me a solid moral foundation, a place from which to ask big questions, and exposure to stories, literature, teachings, poetry, artwork, and music that all communicated the overall coherence of the world. At the heart of this wholeness were the inspiring values of grace and love.
With equal conviction, however, I have to admit that the traditional Christian story of my youth does not speak to the vast majority of my students growing up in the multicultural environment of Hong Kong. Something is amiss when my students study Christianity, and I have a sense that the same problem afflicts the younger generations in Scotland and Ireland. This all comes to mind as I attend Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom School studying the work of Jesuit priest and French paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin at Holy Isle, Scotland, a Center for Health and Well-Being run by a Tibetan Buddhist lama. I offer several stories and reflections in response to this question.
A Story from My Christian Heritage
The first story comes from right after I had completed a two-day service learning workshop in 2005 for students at a Christian school in the U.S. Midwest, and my very friendly local church contact asked me, “So where are you off to now?” I was quite hesitant to actually say what I had planned, fearing her response. Unable to think of any suitable diversion, however, I admitted with some trepidation, “I’m off to Massachusetts to do a five-week program studying Buddhism.” Rather than a scolding look, she brightened and smiled, saying, “Well, that’s good,” and then continued, “You need to know your enemies.” Stunned more by her sunny body language than even the actual verbal message, I mumbled some mindless affirmation and changed the topic. When I share this story in my World Religions class, a good number of students find this kind of thinking difficult to even conceive.
Now let’s fast forward a dozen years to a recent experience with one of my World Religion students. A freshman Korean boy named Justin had been something of a thorn in his family’s side for the last five years because he was an adamant materialist who would not simply capitulate and get baptized for the sake of his Catholic family’s wishes. He then entered my class, studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. In his final paper, he wrote that World Religions had developed within him a “new way to see the world.” He continued,
“I was an extreme atheist and thus, severed all connections with the vertical [spiritual] world…. This course has encouraged me to become more open-minded and accepting towards the vertical dimension, which gave me the courage to set aside my atheist values and become spiritually devoted towards my religion. The exploration of multiple religions and the exploration of their values have made me wiser and more knowledgeable towards an influence that is simply beyond my ability to question.”
After years of intellectual protest, Justin was baptized in a local Catholic church at Easter because he saw that religious traditions as a whole could help him engage his big questions about life. He came to see, I think he would say, that his previous flimsy caricature of religious thought as superstitious avoidance of genuine exploration was totally inaccurate.
As far as I know, there is no Christian evangelism program that borrows such a strategy of studying world religions as way to stimulate growth in the Christian faith. And from my experience, that is a great shame. Can we honestly say that all the spiritual riches of world history accrued to only one religion? The real concern for most students, as Justin illustrates, is not which religion is “right” or “wrong,” but whether a spiritual reality exists, for the message from mainstream society is that the visible is the only reality. Having taught World Religions for some time, it seems that their collective message that exploration of the invisible world has something of value to offer is far more important than emphasizing which one is considered “correct.”
A Buddhist-Inspired Christian Offering
Coming to the present, I write early on a windy and wet morning in the canteen of Holy Isle with a cup of coffee and a stack of inspiring books next to me. A sign to my right entitled “Food Offering” states,
“To the insurpassable teacher, the precious Buddha,
to the insurpassable refuge the precious Dharma
to the insurpassable guide, the precious Sangha,
to the three rare and supreme objects of refuge I make offerings.”
Immediately I Corinthians 10:31 springs to mind, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Both traditions agree that we are invited to participate in the luminous radiance of divine life. Reality is overflowing in its generosity to sustain what we need on all levels. We need inspirational teachers, both past and present, that are exemplars and living embodiments of the great teachings of the past. We need a lineage of teaching that carries forward past insights for the present generation. And whether it’s a church community or sangha, we need to belong to a group striving to realize these teachings in our daily relationships and communal life. Sitting here in the presence of all three on this retreat with Cynthia, my heart enthusiastically affirms that these are “rare and supreme” gifts, and my response is one of gratitude and joy. When breakfast comes, I will gladly offer the energy of this gift back to the Source from which it came
In the context of this retreat, then, I feel inspired by this Buddhist prayer to put into my own tradition and language the sentiments of my experience this week studying the work of Teilhard de Chardin:
“To the insurpassable pioneer and perfector of my faith, the precious Jesus,
to the insurpassable insights contained in the precious Wisdom Tradition, as taught by Teilhard and Cynthia,
to the unsurpassable guide, the mystical community of Christ on Holy Isle,
to the three rare and supreme objects of my affection, I offer myself in service.”
My prayer before meals is enhanced by my contact with Tibetan Buddhism, and like Justin, seeing the beauty in another faith opens me to the depth of my own tradition.
Reflections on the Future
These anecdotes bring me back to the question about the future of Christianity: what can be done to support its efficacy in the world? I offer two thoughts in response. First, it seems necessary to let go of the assumption that Christianity is superior to other faiths. Most of my students in Hong Kong are drawn to an open Christianity that learns from other faiths, while being repelled by a dogmatic one that “holds to its principles.”
Second, we should meet other faiths in the experiences of spiritual practice. Cynthia teaches that ordinary egoic thinking, as seen in the church as well as outside it, can only see by comparison, judging all of life’s experiences through an attraction/avoidance filter. In the religious realm our millennia-long default setting has been that Christianity is seen as correct, and other faiths are necessarily false. Yet through meditation and other spiritual practices, this perception through differentiation mode can slowly be replaced by a perception through wholeness approach. Engaging in spiritual practice allows one to reconcile the differences between faiths in a higher unity.
However, I know from first hand experience that these worldview shifts require a journey, one that began in earnest when I moved to Hong Kong as a young teacher in 1990. This clash of beliefs was a quite a psychological shock – a death actually – that came to me in a dream in which I was suffocated by my older colleagues who lived this more open understanding. A painful rebirth ensued as I had to ask what truly anchored my faith life. Taking the long view on this question, it has only been rootedness in Centering Prayer – a meditation practice that has much resonance in other traditions – that has helped me come to not only a place of intellectual acceptance, but even more so to a genuine visceral enthusiasm for the many paths towards the divine across the world’s cultures. If Christianity is going to remain a vibrant force in many parts of the world, I believe that similar personal and collective journeys are necessary.
My trip to Europe this summer has only confirmed what I have sensed in my own teaching: Christianity is losing its appeal to many 21st century young people. A fundamental re-thinking is necessary. My own experience suggests that inclusiveness – drawing upon all traditions – is not only attractive to students, but helps individuals dig deeper and find the essence of their own faith traditions. Learning from Buddhists has only enlivened my faith, and I find that most Christian students, like Justin, are challenged by a study of other faiths to live a more committed spiritual life rather than sink into existential confusion.
Finally, my sense is that people today want a more “spiritual” Christianity, one that trains them how to cultivate deeper self-knowledge and a greater capacity for compassion. As Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has stated, “To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.” This means a Christianity that is practice-based. We need to revisit the practices of our own heritage to consider which genuinely help people develop their inner lives, while at the same time eagerly reaching out to learn from the experiences of those in other traditions.
- The Spirituality and Practice website describes what a progressive Christianity looks like.