September 27, 2004
Bowing to nothing

Andi is in Paris, and wrote a remarkable post about empty altars. This part rang extremely true to me:

One thing I never lost hunger for, however, was for someone to save me. In Sacre Cour, Christ spreads His arms hugely across the central dome of the cathedral. He is huge. He dwarfs Mary, He dwarfs the Apostle, He commands the heavens and from our vantage point He even dwarfs God and the Holy Spirit, who also have Their places on the Dome. But it is Jesus Christ we see first, and it is to Him we turn our eyes, Christian, heretic, heathen, and infidel alike, and our bodies all lie under the sweep of His arms and gaze.

What a religion! It is what I have secretly wanted my entire life, that there is Someone Out or Above There who, encompassing all, will get me out of my messes and patch up my tarnished, tattered, well-worn life. I've done my best to give this hope, this need, the slip in Buddhism. "It's not the Buddha we bow to, it is our own True Nature." But I'm bowing to Buddha. Buddha-Christ. I was never Christian in the sense I never felt faith in Christ as my Savior. Not once. My confirmation was a sham my entire family participated in because it's What Good Families Do, and I still struggle to forgive myself for that spiritual lie. It does not bode well, the ultimate of False Witness. But though I was never Christian, I am also not un-Christian. The talk of God, of Saviors, of relationships and most especially spiritual duality between the Ultimate and the Earthly is embedded in me.

Converts between religions are a tricky bunch. We carry both the imprint of the old practice and an aversion to it. Things that have been tickling the back of my mind for years are coming to the surface, like a batik: a pattern revealed only as more color washes over, more exposure and more work. Because side-by-side with my hunger for someone else to get me out of this mess is the lack of faith that kept me from Christianity: no one but me can get me out of this mess, whatever the mess is. It occured to me, sometime slowly in the past two days, that I seek the Other because I fear myself. I cannot believe in my own effort any more than I can believe in the acts of salvation by Jesus Christ. I want to believe in my own effort: this hope is what brought me, with a healthy dose of old-fashioned suffering, to Buddhism. That I have replaced Christ with Buddha is indicative of fear and attachment, as well as habit.

That feeling -- the hunger for a savior along with the belief that no one but myself can save me, and yet I can't do it -- is basically where I've been stuck for at least a year. Some Christian friends have lately urged me to get baptized, but I've balked at the fear of false witness. I'd have to go up there and say the Apostle's Creed, and really really mean it! And yet I can't not be Christian, in a way. I write on this blog as if I were one; I have strong opinions about what Jesus was about and what a Christian life entails, and I've been trying to live it. Except for that one thing, the essential thing: that giving of oneself in faith.

Since I don't have the baggage of a Christian upbringing the way Andi does, I obviously feel freer to pursue Christ as my Christ instead of Buddha as my Christ. Yet I have that voice in the back of my head expressing what Andi is saying: that the desire for a savior is nothing more than another unhealthy attachment, even a delusion, a sign of immaturity. When I pray, I do not get much of a feeling that anyone is listening. In fact, the fear of talking to nothing kept me from praying alone for the first year or so of churchgoing. But I've lived with myself long enough to have developed a rather Augustinian pessimism about my own will, and everyone else's for that matter. I no longer believe I can save myself.

It's a mighty conundrum.

By the way, on a slightly related note, Jeremy Puma explains how the Buddha was semi-accidentally turned into a Christian saint. I'd heard of this before, but he fills in some more details.

Posted by Camassia at September 27, 2004 10:12 PM | TrackBack

Interesting post Camassia. Tom of Disputations once wrote "faith is a gift, but it's not so much a matter of having it or not having it. Anyone who believes in God has faith, and faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The way around not having faith is to ask God for it."

For me I don't think my desire for a savior is immature, but my constant necessity to feel His attentiveness is.

Hilaire Belloce wrote: "Faith goes and comes, not (as the decayed world about us pretends) with certain waves of the intelligence, but as our ardour in the service of God, our chastity, our love of God and his creation, our fighting of our special sins, goes and comes..."

Posted by: TSO on September 28, 2004 09:42 AM

Also sprach Andi:
"I want to believe in my own effort."

That's not how it works, my friend.

Don't believe your own effort. Believe in God's.

Posted by: Dash on September 28, 2004 03:04 PM

If that were strictly true the concept of becoming a Christian saint would be rendered absurd. In truth, it takes extraordinary effort to purge oneself of one's self, in order to "make room" for God's grace to have its full and sufficient effect on your life. Detachment is a two-way street.

Posted by: Rob on September 29, 2004 04:28 AM

Your blog provoked so many thoughts and reactions.

I felt very sad for your friend Andi. She has profound insight into the nature of conversion: speaking as a convert myself, I agree with her wholeheartedly. But this no one but me can get me out of this mess, whatever the mess is is so heartbreakingly sad. It is the ultimate misunderstanding of Christ and the Church. I do not doubt that there will be those saved at the Judgment who were not visibly in the Church - we Orthodox like to say we know where the Church is but we don't know where the Church isn't - but to say that we must save ourselves ignores not only the Cross and the Resurrection, but the body of Christ in the Church around us. In a very real sense, we save each other through our acts of prayer, love, and service.

Another thought that cruised through was about theosis, the Orthodox belief that we are united to Christ. I never heard this as a protestant, but now I see it so clearly in the Scriptures that I wonder how I missed it. When one is baptized, it is the beginning of theosis, not the end. We begin the process of uniting ourselves to Christ by several practices (baptism, prayer, fasting, almsgiving) that allow the Spirit more and more access to our bodies, souls, and spirits. That's how we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Thus we participate in our salvation which would be impossible for us to attain without the act of God on the Cross.

St. Augustine is good, but you might want to look a bit further East (plug for Orthodoxy) for a better understanding of faith.

And take the plunge (pun intended) into baptism. Just like marriage, playing house is no understanding of the depth of that relationship, nor is living together without marriage any way to learn about the transcendance of the Sacrament and what it does to your heart and to Heaven. You may be holding back from that which is the next logical step in your faith and you may find that the mighty conundrum won't be resolved until you are baptised.


PS. Rob's got it right. We die to ourselves and live to Christ. He must increase and we must decrease. While there are many saints in the faith who died as martyrs moments after converting (I think of soldiers who died with those whom they guarded whose witness of Christ won the guards), in the end, we who do not have the red baptism of martyrdom must strive to the
white or green martyrdoms
where we put down the passions of the flesh. Of course, none of this happens outside of the power of the Holy Spirit and God's Grace.

Posted by: Kizmet on September 29, 2004 06:52 AM

Yup. And that's where the word "believe" comes in.

I didn't say it was easy.

Posted by: Dash on September 29, 2004 06:58 AM

But Rob, that "extraordinary effort" is also due to God's grace. We cooperate with grace, so it's never dependent all on us. In his sermon "On Working Out Our Own Salvation" Wesley said in regards to "It is God that worketh in us, both to will and to do of his own good pleasure" and "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling":

"We shall then see there is no opposition between these, "God works; therefore, do we work;" but, on the contrary, the closest connexion; and that in two respects. For, First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore you must work...3. First. God worketh in you; therefore you can work: Otherwise it would be impossible....Therefore inasmuch as God works in you, you are now able to work out your own salvation. Since he worketh in you of his own good pleasure, without any merit of yours, both to will and to do, it is possible for you to fulfil all righteousness. It is possible for you to "love God, because he hath first loved us;" and to "walk in love," after the pattern of our great Master."

As a Methodist, I'd say the desire for a savior is the result of God's prevenient grace.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 29, 2004 09:45 AM

I don't disagree with that at all. My interpretation is that the "call" is God's grace that calls the many; the "few who are chosen" are those who respons to that call with the effort necessary to achieve salvation. We are nothing without God; we accomplish nothing good without God's help, but we must accept that help, and use it, of our own free will.

Posted by: Rob on September 29, 2004 01:38 PM


Great post!

While studying computer programming in university as an agnostic, I tried to convince myself that the desire for a savior was merely "another unhealthy attachment, even a delusion, a sign of immaturity" as the voice in your head suggests...

But in my sophomore year, in an encounter with Christ on the Cross, I came face to face with three truths: (1) my own weakness and sin, (2) I couldn't save myself, and (3) Christ was a real, living person who knew, chose, and loved _me_.

I now believe that the desire for a savior, the "hole" in the core of every human heart of is (1) fundamental to what it means to be human, (2) intentionally designed by God so that we would seek and find Him, and (3) an existential expression of being created in the image and likeness of God - as a glove is made for a particular hand (in its image), on Christ can fill the human heart. "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." - St. Augustine.

This theme reminds me of the introduction to _Gaudium et Spes_, a Vatican II document titled Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) which I'll quote here (paragraph 10):

"The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man. For in man himself many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways; on the other he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life. Pulled by manifold attractions he is constantly forced to choose among them and renounce some. Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would.(cf. Rom. 7:14ff) Hence he suffers from internal divisions, and from these flow so many and such great discords in society. No doubt many whose lives are infected with a practical materialism are blinded against any sharp insight into this kind of dramatic situation; or else, weighed down by unhappiness they are prevented from giving the matter any thought. Thinking they have found serenity in an interpretation of reality everywhere proposed these days, many look forward to a genuine and total emancipation of humanity wrought solely by human effort; they are convinced that the future rule of man over the earth will satisfy every desire of his heart. Nor are there lacking men who despair of any meaning to life and praise the boldness of those who think that human existence is devoid of any inherent significance and strive to confer a total meaning on it by their own ingenuity alone.

Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions of recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?

The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all,(cf. 2 Cor. 5:15) can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved.(cf. Acts 4:12) She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever.(cf. Heb. 13:8) Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature,(cf. Col. 1:15) the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time."

The above quote is the source for one of my favorite titles of Christ: The Master Key who unlocks the meaning of human history and the universe!

For the rest, see

Posted by: Fr. Terry Donahue, CC on September 29, 2004 07:36 PM

Christ showed the Way and the Truth. It is up to man to choose to walk the straight and narrow path that passes through the narrow gate and enters into Life.

Posted by: Rob on September 30, 2004 04:27 AM


Wow--thanks for reading and responding! Dash, as a Buddhist I believe in "my" own effort because that's how Buddhists phrase it, but in talking with Christian mystics and Sufis, I've found that, at the center of this "my" effort and the "great faith" that my Zen teachers talk about, is a mysterious not-singular, not-particulated, not-ownable and not-personal Presence that other (monotheistic-based) spiritual paths also recognize. It is the approach that differs, where in Islam (for example) there is total submission to Allah, to the point that the individual identity dissolves into the greatness of the Divine. In Buddhism there is, to use that language, total submission to one's own true nature, which is innately wise and compassionate, not selfish or personal. "My own effort" is, in this sense, not mine: it's recognition that, from the Buddhist standpoint and notably not an orthodox Protestant one, this thing I call myself is much, much more than my limited understanding of it, capable of so much more than I, in a limited and mundane understanding, know. I find incredible hope in that. I liken it to the calling that my Christian friends feel to live as Christ lived, in love and grace. I use different words. But I don't know that our goal is different, to live in the light of something greater than what we conventionally call ourselves.

Kizmet, I don't feel sad for myself. I feel hopeful. As I said, I was never Christian--I never had faith in God or Jesus' saving grace. What I've come to have faith in is that mysterious Presence I mentioned in my response to Dash: call it God, call it Jesus, call it Enlightenment, give it any name or no name. I conceptualize it as absolute wisdom and compassion, and I found hope and, indeed, salvation in a number of ways in the practices and the "try" attitude of my Buddhist teachers. The great difficulty of interfaith dialogue is that we have to come to understand another faith's frame for the Absolute. To hear a Buddhist say "I have to attain Enlightenment myself, and I'm responsible for my actions" flies in the face of notions of predestination and grace as taught by various Christian sects. And yet to read Buddhism through a Christian lense or Christianity through a Buddhist lense is to misunderstand, tragically, the great spirituality possibility each offers. I live happier, more fully, with greater awareness, giving, compassion, hope, and faith as a Buddhist than I ever could have or did without any spiritual discipline at all.

Posted by: Andi on October 3, 2004 10:40 PM

Thanks for explaining a bit about your path to the divine. May you find continued blessings on your journey.

Posted by: Dash on October 4, 2004 07:38 PM
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