Saturday, February 13, 2010


One of the more depressing aspects of trying to write about 'religion' in cyberspace, especially when you have (whatever your faults and limitations) spent a huge amount of time examining it and thinking about it, is that so many people want to dismiss and point fingers -- but not necessarily to consider the question of whether their own vocabulary and syntax on the subject might need expanding. I certainly find myself constantly aware of the limits of my language, and grateful to those who help me enlarge it, however painful that process may sometimes be.

Then there are the shafts of light and encouragement. One such came across my Mac's desktop yesterday evening, in the shape of a post entitled Religions as Schools on a very stimulating site called, evocatively, Echoes of the Name. It follows on from another piece about Keith Ward's book, Images of Eternity.

The author, Kyōshin, picks up on Nicholas Lash's insight that it would be more fruitful to conceive of religions not so much as "collections of beliefs" or propositions, as "schools whose pedagogy has the twofold purpose of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire.” That includes our misshapen ideas about God as a kind of 'superbeing', rather than the transcendently free source of being. It includes a quotation from my own What difference does God make today? and an acute observation from Chris Ward of Triple Gem - the Buddhist Foundation. You can read the post yourself. I will simply reproduce here my own appreciation and response:

Many thanks for this, and for your last post - and, indeed, the site as a whole. Fascinating. I can sympathise with Chris Ward (and you). However, my experience, which includes a good chunk of time as an adult Christian educator, is that those in the churches who are keen to develop a spiritual discipline, and especially those who perceive the connection that Dorothee Soelle makes between 'resistance and mysticism' (q.v.), begin instinctively to move away from the constraining 'God as superbeing' picture. This occurs precisely through the process of shared pedagogy by means of worship and reflection that Lash describes as having the purpose of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire. One also needs to be aware of the possibility that while the language of popular religion can be rough and ready (or unready!), the hearts of those who use it may be much more capacious than their presenting rhetoric. The need, of course, is to discover a language and a pattern of echoes in life that can sustain and develop this capaciousness. Equally, I know many 'simple believers' who, though they might not put it this way, know that they are speaking in metaphors - while their (academic) critics do not! Sara Maitland's book A Big Enough God is an excellent bridge in all this. On the issue and concern about "anthropomorphism", I have written more in 'What difference does God make today?' - though, once again, I am in eternal debt to the wisdom of Nicholas Lash. Grace and peace to you.

Echoes of the Name is a group blog whose contributors focus primarily on the Jōdo Shin stream of Pure Land Buddhism but also write from time to time on other subjects including Christianity, Philosophy and Zen. I wish there were more Christian websites that demonstrated a similar capacity to reside deep within their own tradition while being open and engaging towards others.

Interestingly (to me, anyway!), one of the as-yet-unrealised book projects I have in hand, on 'God after Christendom', has the working title The Unfamiliar Name, drawing from a phrase of T. S. Eliot's in Little Gidding. There is an interesting consonance between the apophatic way within Christianity and elements of philosophical Buddhism, though we may finally diverge (as I do also from Derrida, who I nevertheless love) on the designation of 'the real'. Aquinas, Bonhoeffer, John Caputo, Michael Barnes, Richard Kearney (The God Who May Be and The Wake of Imagination), Nicholas Lash (The Beginning and the End of 'Religion'), Ruth Page and the more mystical Anabaptists are some of the lights to my negotiation of this intriguing area of prayer and intellectual discourse.


Doug said...

Karl Barth in his lectures on religion paid some attention to Pure Land Buddhism.

Simon Barrow said...

Indeed. There's also an interesting response/critique by John Cobb Jr from 1975 (, which mentions Barth's remarks.

I confess that I find Bonhoeffer a useful lens for appreciating the best of Barth on the one hand, and disavowing his tendency towards a 'positivism of revelation' (as Bonhoeffer put it) on the other. I find Barth much less helpful in the interrelegious field than in many others. He viewed plurality from an essentially Christendom perspective, albeit one with strong internal critiques emerging.

Michael Barnes SJ's book Religions in Conversation (SPCK: 1989) has a very useful approach (an alternative to the usual Christian exclusivism / inclusivism / pluralism paradigm), reflected also in his work in relation to Buddhism. (I briefly overlapped with him at Heythrop College when I was on the staff there in 1990. Lovely man.)

Also there's John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives, eds. The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (Orbis Books, 1994).