Religion: The New “R” Word

I recently viewed a wonderful documentary film about the people and the religion of Tibet called Under the Vajra Sky.”  It focused on the religion of Tibetan Buddhism and the systematic destruction of the language, religion, and culture of the Tibetan people since the illegal Chinese annexation and occupation of that country in 1950.

Around an hour into the film, however, I began to notice that the movie’s writer, narrator, and director, John Bush, had been carefully avoiding the use of the word “religion” in referring to Tibetan Buddhism—a religious tradition so obviously “religious” that some reputable scholars in the field have even called it the “Roman Catholicism” of Buddhism.

Instead of labeling these ancient and obvious beliefs, rituals, and devotional practices a “religion,” the filmmaker kept referring to Tibetan Buddhism as a “wisdom tradition.”  By the end of this two-hour movie, he had not once used the term “religion” to describe this ancient faith.  Clouds of incense; sanctuaries filled with chanting monks in ritual headdress; walls covered from top to bottom with icons or, as they are called in Tibet, tankas of protector-deities; throngs of pilgrims prostrating themselves, lighting candles before gilded images of the Buddha, their hands clasped in prayer or fingering their “mala beads,”—Tibetan “rosaries”—to the rhythmic repetition of sacred mantras; spinning prayer wheels; flapping prayer flags:  none of these things would provoke the thoroughly postmodern writer and director to abandon caution by using the “R” word—“religion”—to  describe any of it.

In a very odd and ironic sort of way, this western convert to Tibetan Buddhism was as consistently “a-theistic” in his language as the Chinese government is in its domestic policy.  I won’t presume to speak for His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama—anymore than I would presume to speak for the Bishop of Rome, His Holiness Pope Francis—but all of this semantic nonsense made me wonder if the Dalai Lama might not have been just a little annoyed at hearing his great religion blandly and continually referred to as a “wisdom tradition”!

Well, after the movie, my annoyance quickly turned into more sober reflection as I began to realize that this episode of postmodern silliness is by no means restricted to discourse about Tibetan Buddhism alone.  We in the so-called “blue states” or—as we are sometimes described in clergy circles, the “graveyard of the churches”—are also often very reticent to speak about “religion” and religious believing.   While some of this reticence may have to do with our justified horror over the abuses of religion in both the domestic and international arena these days—especially in the propensity by religious fanatics everywhere to use religion to promote the very secular myth of redemptive violence—I wonder if we Anglicans in particular do not also suffer from old-fashioned embarrassment and a fear to witness as people of faith to “the truth that is in us,” to use Saint Paul’s words.  I wonder if we are not just as cowed by our own doubts, as influenced by the disbelieving majority, and as fearful of making the existential commitment of our whole being to the truth as we have come to know it, as so many others in our increasingly secular culture in North America and Western Europe.

Although we are living in a globalized and religiously plural world, we Christians need not fear to proclaim boldly that we, together with all believers everywhere and from every language, culture, religion, and region, follow a religion and worship a God who always waits like a beggar of love at the door of our hearts, never presuming to push that door open.  We are summoned to keep our hearts open—often despite all pressures to the contrary—to a God who is always greater than anything we may say about God in any religion, language, culture, or—if we must—“wisdom tradition.”

We Christians have made Pascal’s great “wager,” staking our whole lives on the reality of “all that is, seen and unseen,” in the words of the Nicene Creed.   And we have the audacity to hope that this great Mystery, this Hidden Ground of Love, has not “left us as orphans” to find our own way through the corrupted currents of this world.   Always respecting the dignity of difference, we Christians may still proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even as we acknowledge that each of the world’s great religions offers a unique divine self-disclosure and an individual invitation to communion with God and with one another.  Our Baptismal Covenant commits us to lives of missionary discipleship, vigorous evangelism, and servant witness to the Gospel.  So, why not take a modest, first step in proclaiming the Gospel by bringing a friend to church on some Sunday morning?

—The Rev. James La Macchia



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