What Christianity Can Learn From Buddhism About Change

By | December 27, 2012

Author Bryan Berghoef recently wrote about a “shift in Christianity” on his blog. He’s calling the shift “a new convergence” and describes the characteristics of the convergence with this quote by Brian McLaren:

“A new coalition is already happening, as existing organizations and emerging networks discover one another and realize they have independently reached common conclusions… Where and how will this coalition happen? It’s already happening through a variety of sources, as existing organizations and emerging networks discover one another… and begin developing both personal relationships and concrete plans for missional collaboration — especially on behalf of the poor, peace, and the planet.”

If you’re familiar with the postmodern, intentionally deconstructive and amorphous movement called Emergent Christianity, then language about a shift, change, new coalition, progressive conversation or renewed Reformation is probably not a new thing for you. But if you haven’t heard of Emergence prior to now, then I highly recommend you read The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, as well as A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. Both books explain the quietly burgeoning demand for reimagined theology, more inclusive liturgy, wider engagement of religious pluralism and less traditional ways to do “church”.

tug of warWhen I first began to talk about the need for change in Christianity, I was met with a lot of resistance from my more conservative friends, with many of them quoting scripture about God’s “unchanging nature” to explain why they felt the need to dig their heels into the soil. (And yes, I’ve found it pretty ironic that Bible verses concerning God’s unchanging nature were quoted so often to counter cries for change within the church as if the church were God. But I digress.)

One thing is undeniably obvious: Christianity has a problem with change. We’re like the Pharisees of old– stuck in our ways and afraid to move beyond what we’ve always known, regardless of the clear need for us to progress. As I’ve considered our willful stagnation, I’ve realized there’s little precedent for peaceful theological or liturgical change in Christianity. We’re taught to fight like hell against anything that might threaten our rank-and-file absolutism–when what the world really needs right now is people who are prepared to change all the time. We’ve done this in every generation, and with every opportunity for monumental change that has ever been presented to us.

I’ve thought to myself that Christianity would be more prepared for the changes required in our era if, like in Buddhism, our faith required us to accept that all things… our lives, our health, our relationships, our jobs– and yes, even our religions– are constantly changing.

What if we understood that while God (the Ultimate Reality) may not change, humans, human intelligence and human societies certainly do? (Yes, process theologians, I know there’s an argument to be made for God’s changing nature– but go with me on this one.) And what if we acknowledged that our interpretations of scripture, worship styles, and even the desire among Jesus-followers to attend church will all change because this is the nature of creation?… What if rather than focusing on preserving a religion based on an unchanging singular way, we focused on developing a spirituality that can thrive along a multiplicitous middle way?

I sit in my seminary classes and think to myself that our institutions prepare us well for static spirituality, but not for change… however, organisms that are alive must  change all the time. Change is the nature and essence of what it means to be alive. Is Christianity alive? And if so, how long can it continue to live if it isn’t willing to accept the law of unending change?

11 thoughts on “What Christianity Can Learn From Buddhism About Change

  1. Elsa

    Even when you point out how different our society is from the ones described in the OT, which is different from the one in the NT, people cannot see that, therefore, every word written does not necessarily apply to us now.

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      Yes, I agree. I think the problem is that we continue to apply “the letter” of the law, rather than “the spirit.” We cannot use the Bible as if it were a legal text. It’s literature, poetry and myth. We have to derive an understanding of the texts through a lens that will permit us to critique the cultures when needed and embrace the beauty where found.

  2. joannevalentinesimson

    I like your idea that change is the essence of what it means to be alive. In its early years, Christianity changed a lot! It adapted ideas and rituals from surrounding pagan cultures as a way of integrating into them and spreading the Christian message. Now, there is no single Christianity, but rather a plethora of religious groups calling themselves “Christian,” most of which (though not all) are embedded in a rigid belief system regarding the meaning of that label. The “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel” analogy comes to mind here.

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      Hi Joanne! Sorry for the delayed response. I’m catching up on comments. Glad to see that you’ve started a blog. I can’t wait to read what you’ve written and look forward to joining the conversation!

  3. Pearl McElheran

    “What if we understood that while God (the Ultimate Reality) may not change, humans, human intelligence and human societies certainly do?”
    This was a helpful way of explaining the reason change.

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