"Phase" isn't really the best word. The word "phase" implies a temporary situation. But as I said, many former Christians do convert, if that's the right word, to Buddhism. For these former Christians the word "phase" doesn't capture the fact that, in their lives, they actually went through a Christian phase.
I'm using the word "phase" here autobiographically, about the time in my life when I took a serious interest in Buddhism and might have, during these years, been more Buddhist than Christian. My observation here, about my own story, is how similar it seems to many doubting Christians. For many doubting Christians a journey with Buddhism, for a season or permanently, seems very common.
Have you noticed this yourself?
The appeal of Buddhism, for me at least, was that Buddhism offered a way of being spiritual without being metaphysical. Beliefs and doctrine just aren't that important in Buddhism. Thus, for Christians who find value in leading a spiritual life, but who have found Christian metaphysics to be hard if not impossible to swallow, Buddhism seems to be an attractive and common alternative.
I have a great respect for Buddhism. And Buddhism has informed many things in my own Christian practice. Here are four influences:
Being in the moment and only in the moment is something I've integrated into how I understand Christian spiritual practice. Take, for example, this meditation I recently wrote on the famous passage in Ecclesiastes "there is a time for everything":
There is a time for everything. And whatever you are doing right now that is the time for that. So be present in that moment. Don't be in a different time. Don't be ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Don't live in guilt, regret or shame. Don't live with worry, fear and apprehension. Live into the moment. The time is right now.Consider also poems I've written like Dharma with take mindfulness as a theme.
There is a time to tuck your kids in at night. When it's that time be present. Do that well and fully.
There is a time (in my life) to teach a class. When it's that time I should do that work to the best of my ability.
There is a time to drink a cup of coffee with a friend or loved one. When it's that time I should savor the moment and not be picking up my iPhone to check my email.
There is a time for everything.
And when it's that time be there and nowhere else.
Related to the practice of mindfulness, the Buddhist idea of non-attachment is something I also use in my Christian practice. As I see it, non-attachment is one of the main ways a Christian does battle with the Principalities and Powers. This is something I've written about a lot, about how idolatry is striving after self-esteem by serving the Principalities and Powers. One way we "come out" of that idolatry is to "die" to the cultural self-esteem project. And by "die" I mean "practice non-attachment." To "die to the world" is to become indifferent to the lures of how the culture defines success and significance. The way we resist idolatry is in becoming apathetic to how the Principalities and Powers try to push our buttons, the neurotic weak spots of our self-esteem.
3. Moral Failure as Ignorance
In Buddhism people do bad things because they are ignorant, not because they are depraved and wicked. There isn't a moral stain, just confusion and myopia. When people do bad or evil things they think, in that moment, that this behavior is actually going to make them happier or better off. They are mistaken of course. And that's the tragedy.
By and large, this is how I see the situation. I don't think people are as wicked as they are weak and confused. As God describes the people of Nineveh to Jonah, people just don't know their right hand from their left. This theme also shows up from time to time on this blog. An example from another recent post:
When you are a college professor on a Christian campus you are often asked about your opinion as to if Behavior X is or is not a sin. The inquiring minds of college students want to know. And one can assume that their interest is more than philosophical.These appeals of mine to the wisdom literature have been informed by my study of Buddhism. I tend to think that people are more foolish than wicked.
...it's at these times where I find the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament to be a better framing than the Protestant worry about escaping the wrath of an angry God.
Specifically, some things might not be sinful, but they can be decidedly stupid. Some things don't make you a bad person, but they can mark you as foolish. And some things aren't as immoral as they are immature.
As I said at the start, perhaps the greatest appeal of Buddhism is its lack of dogma and its focus on practice. You practice Buddhism, you don't believe in it. That's very different from Christianity where belief is paramount. There are two well-known problems with this. First, and most obviously, some of the stuff in the Christian faith is hard to believe in. And second, by privileging belief/faith many Christians never get around to actually being Jesus-followers. Christians are those who believe in Jesus. Oddly, these believers don't actually have to follow Jesus. For example, Jesus preached non-violence and few Christians actually practice non-violence. Following Jesus is optional for most Christians. Belief, by contrast, is mandatory.
Because of this lunacy many Christians are starting to place orthopraxy (right practice), rather than orthodoxy (right belief), at the center of their faith. Above you might have noticed some odd word choices, phrases like "my own practice of Christianity" and "how I understand Christian spiritual practice." The focus of my faith is on the practice of Christianity--actually following Jesus, being a disciple.
As I often say to my sons: "It's not just about believing in Jesus. You're actually supposed to do this stuff."
...In all this you can see how my "Buddhist phase" has informed and, I believe, strengthened my understanding and practice of Christianity. And this is not to say that these ideas aren't found within Christianity. Mindfulness, non-attachment, wisdom, practice--these are all found within the bible and the Christian tradition. The problem was that my Sunday School training in Christianity never pulled these ideas to the surface. Ironically, it took an exposure to Buddhism to help me find these treasures within my own faith tradition.
So here's the question you might be wondering about. Why didn't I become a Buddhist like so many other former Christians?
I think, at root, it was a psychological reason. To be blunt, I'm too pissed off to be a Buddhist.
In Buddhism negative emotions are forms of dukkha, the suffering we experience because we cling to (become attached to) things that are changing. To be free from negative emotions we are to cultivate non-attachment. A key part of this involves not making value judgments like "good" or "bad." Such dualisms and valuations are forms of attachment that cause suffering. Consequently, when we let go of these forms of attachment we no longer suffer and can experience peace.
The problem I discovered about myself is that I'm too emotional to get very far down this road. Here's what I mean by that.
I'm unsettled, grieved, angry and broken by the suffering in human experience. And I take these feelings to be at the root of my religious experience, of my encounter with the Divine. These feelings are primary to me. These feelings are holy. These feelings are not illusions, they are not mistakes. They are forms of attachment, yes, but these attachments are where God is encountered in my life. And I do not wish to be emancipated from the suffering they cause me.
In all this I'm wired like the Jewish prophets who histrionically raged and wept as the Word of God in the world. I encounter God most profoundly in their pathos and in the pathos of those like them in the world today. And I'm a Christian because I see Jesus as the climax of the prophetic tradition showing how the pathos of God can be incarnated in a way of life, a way of being human in the world.
So there it is, the main reason why I didn't convert to Buddhism. I couldn't sacrifice this aspect of my religious experience.
And so my Buddhist phase ended. But, as seen above, Buddhism helped me to become a better Christian. I carry so much of it with me.
And for that, I'm grateful.