The news has come rattling over the wires in the past week that a diocese of The Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Church in America) has elected a Buddhist as Bishop-elect of the Diocese of Northern Michigan. The reality is probably not quite as exciting, here are his words,
I am quite honored, as an Episcopal priest, to have been trained in the art and practice of Zen meditation. I am not an ordained Buddhist priest. I am an Episcopal priest eternally grateful for the truth, beauty and goodness, experienced in meditation.
Kevin Thew Forrester, My Christian Faith & the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation, 25 February 2009
I have to admit being rather attracted to the idea of a Zen Bishop, particularly if he has awesome ninja skills, but that’s probably not the point.
So what is the point? (Other than that the Episcopalians are crazier than a crate-full of coconuts, which we already knew).
I’m interested because I’ve been thinking about the Christian understanding of suffering, and addressing suffering is at the heart of Zen practice. If being a Zen Christian really just meant embracing a series of meditation practices designed to promote focussed attention, I’m not sure that we shouldn’t all get on board. Retaining focussed attention and ‘slow consciousness’ (I made that up!) are fundamental challenges to those of us who live wedded to the endlessly branching and thus dissipating interweb.
I definitely need more Zen in my day.
The Zen Bishop again,
Literally thousands of Christians have been drawn to Zen Buddhism in particular because, distinct from western religions, it embodies a pragmatic philosophy and a focus on human suffering rather than a unique theology of God. “Lay ordination” has a different meaning in Buddhist practice than in the Christian tradition. The essence of this welcoming ceremony, which included no oaths, was my resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to awakening to the truth of the reality of human suffering. Meditation deepens my dwelling in Christ.
Here is the problem: thinking that we can plug a Zen conception of suffering and its solutions into a Christian theology. It won’t work because the space isn’t vacant. Christianity already has a theology of suffering, more importantly, it has a theology of suffering that is an integral aspect of the Christian doctrines of God, humanity, and salvation, and is a key co-ordinate in Christian ethics. Further, the Zen conceptions of suffering, and the Christian understanding, while actually quite similar in their diagnoses of the problem, are worlds apart in their solutions.
I’ll come back to this but here’s a taster from the First Epistle of Peter. Peter is writing to a group of people who have likely been expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius. They are refugees, probably ethnically and religiously distinct from their host community (and thus a prime target for vilification and persecution). In the middle of the letter he begins to address particular groups within the Christian fellowship, he begins with the Slaves. You can’t get much lower down the food-chain than a homeless, ethnic, weirdo-religious Slave in the Roman empire.
And for their comfort and encouragement he writes:
For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. (1Peter 2:21 HCSB)