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Honest to Buddha

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By Ron Martin

In 1963 a book was published that was to challenge, in an unprecedented manner, the Christian concept of God. It was by the then Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, later to become Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. With a new edition published in 2001 it became an international best-seller, with sales of more than one million copies. It was titled Honest to God.

By questioning the very basis of Christian doctrine it naturally provoked considerable hostility from the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, but it also received acclaim from some theologians, as well as those lay people who had found many of these doctrines untenable. This bombshell came only a decade after Pope Pius had proclaimed the doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. This had caused dismay among the Anglican communities, because it seemed to slam the door shut to the ecumenical movement, that had gradually and painstakingly gained some momentum up to that point.

From a Buddhist perspective it should have been seen as of even greater importance, and yet I believe that it has not so far made the impression it deserves. The main thrust of the Bishop’s thesis concerned the symbolism that represented God in relation to the Universe and to us as individuals. To some extent this question had been dealt with by theologians long before 1963, but it had been concerned solely with the debate as to whether God was imminent or transcendent. The Bishop went much further than this by demolishing each symbolic position one after the other. The first to go was the idea that God was “up there” (i.e. in Heaven above) and this immediately clashed with the Pope’s doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. But a more difficult concept to deal with was the idea that God was “out there”. It was more difficult because “out there” does not refer to any particular place, but it still amounted to a dualistic interpretation by making God a separate being from his creation.

In a short article it is clearly impossible to go into details as to how the Bishop went beyond even this last concept, but the conclusion is the important part, because he did not restrict himself to a change of symbolism but with what Paul Tillich had previously spoken of as God “in depth”. This was not just the old symbolism in reverse, with a God “down under” for a God “up there” or “out there”. As the Bishop put it, “When Tillich speaks of God ‘in depth’ he is not speaking of another Being at all. (This was the Bishop’s own emphasis). What Tillich meant by God is the exact opposite of any deus ex machina — a supernatural Being to whom one can turn to and who can be relied upon to intervene in answer to prayer. For the word God in this context now means the ultimate depth of all our being; the creative ground and meaning of all our existence”.

Now, where have we heard this before? Surely it is what is meant by, “Look within, thou art Buddha”? Buddhists need not budge an inch: Christians are moving slowly but inexorably in our direction. This is the ecumenical movement of the future.

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