Christianity as Religion or Way of Life?

There's a teaching of the Buddha that has had a great impact upon me. It's often called the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow.

The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow

One day, a new follower of the Buddha approached him with a series of questions.

He asked, "Master, do we have a soul? And does the soul survive our death?"

The Buddha responded, "Why do you wish to know these things?"

"Because," the man replied, "without these answers what is the point of following you?"

The Buddha responded:

"This is what your are like. You are like a man who has been struck by a poisoned arrow. Your friends take you to the healer so that the arrow can be removed and an antidote given for the poison. But you refuse to allow the healer to remove the arrow until he first answers all your questions. Who shot the arrow at you? What was his motive? What kind of arrow is it? What kind of poison did he use? On and on you ask your questions as the arrow remains in your body with the poison seeping into your blood. And so you die before your questions are answered.

You want my teaching to answer your questions.

My teaching only removes the arrow."
This parable gets at an important aspect of Buddhism: Metaphysics isn't important. Only the path (the dharma) matters. The teaching of the Buddha is aimed at alleviating suffering. It isn't intended to satisfy our metaphysical curiosity. Is there a God? A soul? Free will? Heaven? Hell? In Buddhism it doesn't really matter. It just concentrates on getting the arrow out.

It's this lack of metaphysics that makes it hard to characterize Buddhism as a "religion." Thus, many people feel more comfortable calling Buddhism a way or philosophy of life. You don't really believe things in Buddhism (although you can). Rather, you do things. Which is why Buddhist "observance" is called practice rather than faith.

In contrast, we tend to think of Christianity as a religion. That is, Christianity tends to concern itself with the metaphysical questions. Thus, Christianity if often defined by orthodoxy, having the proper answers to those metaphysical questions. For example, for many Christians your views regarding the Trinity are considered to be of some great importance.

This is not to deny that Christianity is not practiced. The early Christians were called "The Way" (dharma). Christians are "followers" (disciples) of a "Master." In this, the emphasis is less on believing things about Jesus than moving in the world the way Jesus moved in the world.

Some of the comments to my last post--What defines a Christian?--got me thinking about these points of divergence and convergence between Christianity and Buddhism. Specifically, although this is a very crude way of framing the issue, I tend to think you can group Christians into one of two camps. On the one hand are Christians who define their faith via metaphysics. That is, being a Christian is about what you believe. About God. About Jesus. About life after death. And so on. In this view, we see Christianity as a religion.

On the other hand, you have those who approach Christianity in a way that looks similar to the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. That is, these people consciously follow the Way of Jesus (count themselves as his disciples) without giving much thought to metaphysics. In this, Christianity is less a religion than a way of life. A Christianity that is defined as practice rather than as belief.

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49 thoughts on “Christianity as Religion or Way of Life?”

  1. Buddhism's diversity makes it hard to characterize, not its purported lack of metaphysics. For example, there are devout practicing Buddhist in many areas who've never heard of the 4 noble truths, and a fewer still who've never heard of the three jewels, making this last (the general identifier) hard to do. Though the claim that Buddhism lacks metaphysics tells me that the person making it either has a job in academia or college and Americanized sources are their only exposure. This isn't the point of my comment though:

    Ironically, Buddhism is characterized by something, that is the idealization of non-dualistic thinking. Your categories here are extremely either/or. Now, this is a blog not a doctoral thesis, and I'm inclined toward a generous reading. However, the polemic against any ontology seems obvious.

    Yes, we wrote the book on "orthodoxy", much to our shame. I "cringed" inwardly when you wanted to use the Apostles Creed as a road map for Christian belief. Personally, I prefer the unflattering notion of Christians as "Jesus obsessed". But contemporary thinker's animosity towards metaphysics is as foreign to Christianity historically as a host of other notions that academics like to point out, e.g. modern views of homosexuality. Now I'm the one who's on dangerous ground, so let me explain. Whether it has something to contribute worthwhile remains to be seen, it certainly has in Buddhism (anti-metaphysical thinking not contemporary thought, although the latter has too).

    I'm appreciative of you bringing this essentialist/existential definitional problem to the foreground, but you do seem to be overstating your case in precluding any metaphysical considerations.

    Christianity is a way of life and a religion. Christianity is ethical and metaphysical. Perhaps we should being arguing "ethics before ontology" and identifying Christians by their faithfulness not their creedalism, but there's good reasons for thinking "without/excluding" metaphysics is as impoverished as this bastardized Hellenistic thing (with a few Hydra heads attached) we have today.

  2. Great Post Richard. This parable too had a great impact on me, as did reading Living Buddha Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh. The parallels between buddhist practice and the monastic / contemplative tradition of the church are very interesting. I'd love to read a post by you on that!

    Best wishes


  3. Hi Joshua,
    Thanks for this response. It is helpful to me and does correct some of the errors/extremes of the post.

  4. Might both ways have the potential for becoming about belief? If one is to follow the Way of Jesus then one must determine what that means. I could see the potential for an orthodoxy developing around this idea. I see your point though and I think it is a good one.

  5. For a great example of both tendencies melded together, see Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses. When it comes to both religion/orthodoxy and a way of life/acesis, the Cappadocians (and much of Eastern Christendom) always held strongly to the significance of both. While they were deeply concerned with the link between monastic life and the path of the martyr and spirituality among ordinary laypeople, they also laid much of the metaphysical groundwork for the Trinitarian theology to which Christians now assent. Of course, Western Christianity has recently leaned a bit more toward orthodoxy as merely a system of belief than the ancient Eastern churches did; but perhaps movements like Pentecostalism are correctives to that tendency.

  6. Is there a third general way to frame Christianity: a foundational relationship of trust?

    It does entail a core metaphysical assertion: that Jesus does exist and is now alive. (You can't be in relationship with someone fictitious or dead.) But it's not *about* metaphysics.

    Similarly, it does express itself in a different Way of life. (If it doesn't affect your life, it's hard to claim the relationship is authentic or foundational.) But it's not *about* practice.

    Would you see that as a third frame or as a variant/hybrid of the other two?

  7. I think this is an excellent distinction. Personally, I have a lot of problems with the people who see Christianity as a collection of beliefs: you must believe Jesus is God's son, came to the Earth, died on the cross, rose again, et cetera.

    I think the main irony is that any of these believers can be shown to have, somewhere, a heterodox belief or idea. If Christianity is all about believing the right things, well, every evangelical fundamentalist I have ever met had a demonstrably unBiblical belief about something. From the obvious falsehood of "eternal" Hell to the wildly unfounded "Rapture," nobody is an orthodox Christian believer period. So, if God judges us on our beliefs, we are all in serious trouble.

    Contrast this to the things Jesus actually said; "My yoke is gentle and my lordship mild." Doesn't sound like somebody on a supernal cosmic rampage and who considers shellfish an "abomination."

  8. How does the poisoned arrow Christian differ from a Buddhist? What method would you use to distinguish yourself as a Christian?

    Or would such a distinction even be necessary? Perhaps God approaches us without categories.

  9. "Personally, I have a lot of problems with the people who see Christianity as a collection of beliefs."
    I'm with you, Dammerung.

    I've been thinking about this very thing, how churchianity defines Christianity as A. Get on the organizational Belief Bus. B. Pay your fare (tithe) C. Take a seat, and you will be handed your programmatic itinerary.

    I'm personally in trouble with family for dissenting from the whole fundamentalist belief-only agenda take. I've gone "rogue," from their perspective, and no doubt they're "praying for me."

    MacDonald addresses this "belief" vs. living also. "Instead of so knowing Christ that they have Him in them saving them, they lie wasting themselves in soul-sickening self-examination as to whether they are believers, whether they are truly trusting in the atonement, whether they are truly sorry for their sins - the way to madness of the brain, and despair of the heart. Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in Him if you do not do anything He tells you."

    He's consistent with James, faith without works is dead. And with Jesus, who reminded the Pharisees that despite religious practices, they had neglected mercy, justice and and the brutal self-honesty of truth; and that it's God's priority that one reconcile with an offended brother over presenting any religious offering.

  10. I think that most of us grant the need to define the scope of "Christian" (or "Buddhist") for the very reasons that Joshua noted: no generality is likely to apply helpfully to an entire religious tradition. And I am also sympathetic to the view that practice ought to be stressed over belief--or what's the point of belief? But this point needs to be made: a religious focus on practice is possible only after it is agreed what the goals of practice are.

    "The Passion," the centerpiece of the Christian narrative, depicts divine suffering motivated by love of humanity. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path teach that suffering results from being attached to this world. I can believe that Jesus lacked enlightenment since he willingly engaged in the passion, or I can believe that it is fiction to think that compassionate DETACHMENT is a psychological possibility that can lead to Nirvana. It seems that the approach to one's "practice" needs to decide which belief has the best hold on reality.

    I once made this point to a friend who calls himself a "moral Christian" but also thinks in Buddhist terms precisely to avoid metaphysical entanglements. (He's a phil. prof. who administers the religion "emphasis" at the local university.) His response was that Buddhism originated in a time and place of tremendous suffering, and should be judged as a practical approach for dealing with that. But if overwhelming suffering does not define our lives for the most part, we will want to question whether we will buy into Buddhism's approach to its practice. Same for Christian faith. Did it arise as a response to an oppressive religious and political legalism? I think so. Does that make its origin more compatible with 21st Century sensibilities? If we get back to the gist of faith, and don't try to import 1st Century morality as tied to the original impulse, then I think so. But is it a mere historical contingency that makes that so?

    Well, you have to ask a lot of questions and consider many potential answers to come to terms with that. But metaphysics will play a part in determining whether--and if so, what--Christian practice ought to add to the "practice" of a moral life for an educated 21st Century person.

    It's that question which continues to make natural theology an interest for me. I don't subscribe to a high view of what it can accomplish, but it does address a question that can't be ducked by an appeal to practice.

  11. "From the obvious falsehood of "eternal" Hell . . ."

    Would you be willing to share the evidence for this assertion?

  12. Is Christianity a religion or a "way of life"? That depends on what you are raised to believe, as it is both.

    Christianity is a religon, as it has practices, rituals, dogma etc. that define it among religious traditions. But, it is also "way of life" because that defines how one lives, in light of a 'moral model". The question then becomes, is Jesus life "your moral model"?

    Problem is: If Jesus is "Your moral model", should he be everyone's moral model? Why or why not? Whenever one sets up standards, then what was once a "way of life" in early Christian practice, becomes a religion. Religion is known for its "group think".

  13. Christianity is whatever it is regardless of what you or I may think about it. So while our upbringing impacts our current thinking about it, it does not impact what Christianity is in reality. Nor does what this or that group of people think or say or do define Christianity.

    Why in the world would anybody take some particular, middle eastern, Jewish guy from 2000 years ago as his/her moral model? Surely we can find a nice living actor or political figure or rap singer or academician to emulate?

    No, if Jesus is not God incarnate who paid the price of my sin then we really ought to just stop talking about him. He is dead and gone. We have no reliable information on what he really did or said. We are just wasting our time.

  14. "No, if Jesus is not God incarnate who paid the price of my sin then we really ought to just stop talking about him. He is dead and gone. We have no reliable information on what he really did or said. We are just wasting our time."

    That's right. Many founders of religious traditions are "alive and well".., not just Jesus.

    There are many problems about how to understand the world in all its complexity, let's not add to the problems with simplistic solutions. As you believe in the literal atonement, then, possibly these questions and the struggle to understand do not matter to you.

  15. The Greek word that gets (mis)translated into "eternal" is aion. Aion refers to an ambiguous but FINITE length of time. The Septugant says that Sodom and Gamorrah burn for an "aion" of fire. Are they still burning today? Exodus 21 says that a particular servant was attending to his master for an "aion." Is he still serving him today?

    Furthermore, the words used for "Hell" are from Greek mythology. Paul talks about Tartaros and Hades. Are Christians believing in these things now? Is it equally Christian to believe in Elysium and Folkvangr? Do you really believe the Greek mythological place Tartaros exists or are you just assuming that because a doctrine has existed for a long time, it must be true?

    Eternal Hell is not even a Biblical doctrine and holding its existence is a clear cut case of heresy. Long-standing and influential heresy but heresy nonetheless. If you think God judges us solely by believing the right things, you are in for an "aion" of peril.

  16. People like you are not afraid to call many parts of the Apocalypse of John metaphorical, or the Parables of Christ..

    but you are so in love with eternal burning nightmare flame for all who engage with God through a different religion that you won't even consider it as a metaphor for an unpleasant but finite post-mortem condition.

  17. Aion refers to an ambiguous but FINITE length of time.

    Since we are talking about ‘eternal hell’ we ought to talk about the adjective, aionion. I mainly reference Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996, c1989). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. If you have a more reliable source, I would be happy to read it. In any case, here is a small part of the entry for αἰώνιος: pertaining to an unlimited duration of time—‘eternal.’
    βληθναι εἰς τὸπ ρτὸ αἰώνιον – ‘be thrown into the eternal fire’ Mt 18.8
    το αἰωνίου θεο — ‘of the eternal God’ Ro 16.26.

    If you think God judges us solely by believing the right things, you are in for an "aion" of peril.

    I am glad to hear that since I do not think that.

    People like you are not afraid to call many parts of the Apocalypse of John metaphorical, or the Parables of Christ.

    True, I am not afraid to do this. Nevertheless, I have never done it.

    but you are so in love with eternal burning nightmare flame . . .

    What have I actually said that might lead to such a ridiculous conclusion?

  18. Aionos is just the adjectival form of aion. It does not confer a new or unique meaning to the root word. Aion is inherently finite. Greeks had a cyclical conception of time, like the Indians with their series of regenerating yugas. The modern idea of time flowing like an arrow with a beginning and an end would have been an alien idea to them. The Greeks thought of the world as a cycle of aeons, of ages. All phenomena are subject to change and that is what distinguishes them from the Unmoved Mover that is God.

    Look, Paul was writing to a Greek audience. He wanted to tell people that without following Jesus' teachings of love and forgiveness, they might have an unpleasant spiritual "dark night." He used GREEK MYTHOLOGY to illustrate his point; he was speaking poetically.

    The medium must be taken into account with the message. If you try to find the grave of the shepherd who searched for his lost sheep, you have not properly understood the story! It is not a parable about a literal shepherd who was born and died and was buried somewhere. It is a parable about a loving God who will never abandon any of his creation and will go the furthest out of His way for the ones who are the most lost. I find it impossible to reconcile the parable of the lost sheep with a belief in Hell.

  19. Aion is inherently finite.

    Your position is clear. And, yes, I still remember my sixth grade grammar regarding nouns and adjectives. Since we were talking about aion’s use as an adjective (i.e., eternal hell), I thought that would be more relevant than looking at entries for the noun form. Apparently, I was wrong. I guess, my lexicon is also wrong. Can you recommend a better one?

    He (Paul) used GREEK MYTHOLOGY to illustrate his point; he was speaking poetically.

    Would you tell me to what Pauline passage you are referring? For, at this point, I don’t understand how your comment here has anything to do with the meaning of aion. And, I do wish to try to understand your point.

    I find it impossible to reconcile the parable of the lost sheep with a belief in Hell.

    OK; but, have you looked at Luke 15:7. I think it may help. For the parable is not about a God “who will never abandon any of his creation and will go the furthest out of His way for the ones who are the most lost.” The only ‘lost sheep’ that is being discussed is the one who repents. The 99 (most of humanity - metaphorically speaking!) don’t think they have any need for repentance. They are wrong and there is a consequence for their error. Call it hell or tartaros or eternal fire. The question is how to correctly understand the text and not whether I like it or not.

  20. Isn't it true that "Paul" could be useful for the Church to build its Tradition? Greek mythology was what the Church used to create their theology.

    Isn't it debated whether this was the case about Jesus, as well?

  21. Do you really think there is a correct interpretation of a text? Post-modernism and semiotics seems to have laid that idea to rest. There is no correct way to understand a text. Each person opens a text and brings themselves into what they read.

    I have heard two different Christians read the exact same verse and derive absolutely opposite conclusions. You can't divorce the meaning of a text from its author, nor its READER. Another Buddhist parable talks about the moon being a myth. There is not any one moon - there is a moon each for each person observing it.

    Two people look at the same painting and see different things. Don't look for being CORRECT, look for being charitable, merciful, kind, forgiving.

  22. A "correct" interpretation is according to the historical record behind the text. The problem is that there is too little information to be emphatic about such things...

    Post-modernism's understanding of a text is nothing other than Gestalt therapy, in my opinion...Objectivity is a hard case when it comes to history, as different people write different histories...such were the writers of the gospels...

    What good is such "hodge-podge"? unless the Church wants to form their "group think" around it?

  23. Robert Orsi, a historian of American religion, and one of my grad school professors, once said that the history of American Protestantism can be understood in two trends/ groups: those that are busy re-asserting the theology of John Calvin in their lives and those that are busy undoing the effects of a Calvinistic upbringing/ mindset.

    These categories relate to your categories here: belief-based religion is a re-assertion of Calvin and "way" Christianity seems to entail a discarding of Calvinistic beliefs.

    These categories may be "crude," as you say, but they are helpful nonetheless. And mostly accurate.

  24. In Christianity, you cannot have one without the other. If you do not know what you believe, then you cannot adequately or accurately follow. This requires a commitment and discipline of study. If you do not act of what you have learned, then you do not follow Jesus Christ as a disciple. In this way, Christianity is not either a "way of life" or a "religion", but a religion that demands a way of life.

  25. Don't look for being CORRECT, look for being charitable, merciful, kind, forgiving.

    So, before we can deal with aion's meaning, we need to define 'CORRECT.' I think each author had a meaning in mind when she put the word symbols in sequence. I most likely can never PERFECTLY align my understanding with their intent. Nevertheless, I can try to approach their intent, no?

    So, correct for me means using the intellect I have to approach the original intent of the author. So what if it is difficult? Now, how is that activity not charitable, or merciful, etc?

    So, what is the support you have for your clear statement that: eternal hell is obviously false? And, do you still hold to your previous interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep and this god who is going to forgive everybody?

  26. :)...

    God is not Sovereign in the individual affairs of men...this is what the Enlightenment was about. Our country attained to its greatness because it protected the value of individual conscience and commitment to different values concerning one's life commitments...

  27. Sorry Angie, I missed this post :-(

    Isn't it true that "Paul" could be useful for the Church to build its Tradition?

    If by the church you mean some visible organization of people, then sure. This organization (splintered though it may be) can use "Paul" or "Jesus" or whatever to fashion any myth that is perceived to be to its advantage. However, these various theologies do not alter the Truth. Only one of them can be right and maybe all of them are wrong. Your pick.

  28. And as that "way of life" is defined, it can be in conflict with AMerica's understanding of liberty....on one hand...

    but at the same time, it is according to the laws that protect those liberties....

  29. And I think it is a shame that fundamentalists groups are gaining momentum in scholarship, such as with the SBL, b/c it devalues reason and replaces it with faith. Faith raises questions about justice, as faith cannot be based on reason when faith is individualized...

    At the same time, the Church should not protect its right against the questions,discoveries or investigations that could be answered and bring resolutions to the questions facing man today...

  30. I don't know what you mean by "the Truth" must have "inside information"...and if so, then be happy that you are chosen by God....

  31. This is the very reason why I have lost interest in "spiritual things", as "spiritual people" are so "special" they are above the "rule of law"....but it is the same concern I have for our country because of our leaders in every arena being "above the law" or bending the rules to suit their purposes, without the consent of the governed...representatives shoud respect the people they are representing...

  32. "spiritual people" are so "special" they are above the "rule of law"....

    How does this respond to anything I just wrote? For the record, I don't think anybody should be above the rule of law. Even the leaders to whom you referred.

  33. you must have "inside information"

    I don't; the information I have is out there for all of us. Further, I didn't say I had "the truth." What I mean by truth is the belief that there is one and only one reality. And, it is not changed by my grasp of it or lack thereof.

  34. The problem with the parable - like many oversimplifications - is that it doesn't paint the entire picture. The issue is not that the man who has been shot is asking too many questions of the purported healer. The issue is that the man is presented with many purported healers - and he must decide - because his time is very limited - which healer to trust. He can only ascertain which healer to trust by trying to understand which healer has methods, practices and antidotes that make sense to the man and that have the best efficacy in his judgment.

    This is the correct parable. There is not a single option. If were so, the choice would be easy because there would be no choice. But there many choices. The man who pretends otherwise isn't choosing wisely at all. He is abnegating his personal responsibility to choose carefully.

  35. Sorry David, but whenever truth is capitalized then, I percieve it as "upper level truth" "bag", not yours :)...

    You are correct that the only reality that we all can grasp, if we have the desire to not deny, hide behind false facades, or religious-ease, is who we are, what we value, and what we live for.

    Those these character traits, values and life choices will differ, that does not impede whether one is honest, forthright, etc. in their dealings with others. The is the basis of relational trust, whether personal or public.

    Again, I am sorry I misunderstood you.

  36. This is fortuitous as well. As I continue my discussion group on "humanness", ideas of soul/mind and the afterlife, some have asked the value of "digging too deep" into questions and issues of philosophy and metaphysics. The parable above - which offers such an enticing and seductively simple way to thinking - and my response to it sum up the problem nicely. There are no simple choices and there few choices that are inconsequential. As rational creatures, one of the great burdens and freedoms is the laboring over decisions. Walking blindly - as comforting and peaceful and enticing as it is, is cowardice. This, followed with the idea that we live our real beliefs (as opposed to "aspirational" beliefs that we may profess, but that do not reflect the way we live) makes our careful thought about our beliefs and why we hold them all the more important.

  37. Definitely. We're all just human on this planet. Christianity is meant to be one vehicle for conveying salvation to the world, bringing it into line with the Kingdom of God, which involves such things as getting ethics right.

    I see discussion of a duality ("believe" v "'do") and avoiding it, but I must admit to finding sentiments such as "both believe and do" rather trite clichés too.

  38. So if I have no business questioning the "definition" of Christianity, and it is independent of other people's definition as well... then logically it has no useful meaning or definition at all. Fail.

  39. It's a third way, but it doesn't encompass all who would call themselves Christians or seekers of the Kingdom.

  40. Question all you wish. Is there something about those people in Antioch that you are not sure of related to the definition? People today who possess those same characteristics meet the requirements of being Christian.

  41. All Acts 11 has to say about early believers in Antioch is that some people from Cyprus and Cyrene went to them "proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus", whatever that might mean.

    So yes, I certainly will question all I can what right you have to claim absolute knowledge of a definition of Christianity.

  42. Oops, "but at the same time, it is according to the laws that protect those liberties.... " SHOULD read, "but, at the same time, it is according to the laws, that limit those liberties".

  43. I truly hope that you do not suggest that the only way to be a Christian is to live in a "communistic" environment...where Acts is the actual reality of life....that would take us back to pre-modernity...or to post-modernity...

    Such thinking is important in families, but not on the scale of nation-states....some today have tried to implement such thinking with Communitarianism....

  44. All Acts 11 has to say about early believers in Antioch . . .

    You’ve said it! Acts 11 (which is either God speaking truth to us or myth; take your pick) tells us that those who believe (not those who think they believe or those who say they believe; but those who in truth believe) are Christians.

    Only two people know that an individual is a Christian. God and the Christian himself. Non-Christians who think of themselves as Christians are simply deluded. To say that 381 million North American’s (72%) are Christian is to completely miss the point of the narrow vs. the broad way and to mix people who think they are Christians with actual Christians as if there is no difference.

  45. You’ve said it! Acts 11 (which is either God speaking truth to us or myth; take your pick) ...

    This is a false dilemma.
    It's a slogan, it's sloppy thinking.

  46. So on the one hand we have Christians who define their faith based on what they believe (Rom. 10:9), and on the other we have those who approach Christianity in a way that looks similar to Buddhism.


    Is not it obvious that even asking such questions about faith and practice presupposes the importance of right 'belief'?

    Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can't Christianity be about believing the right things AND living your life like Jesus?

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