Is Christianity a ‘Toxic Brand’?

Shirley du Boulay’s autobiography is called ‘A Silent Melody’ and I suspect the title is influenced to some extent by that of William Johnston’s book, Silent Music. Du Boulay refers to that book in a number of places as having a particular influence on her when she read it in the mid ’70s. Both books talk a lot about meditation and it is the practice of meditation that has remained with du Boulay as she has travelled first deeper into the Christian church and then further away from it until she finds herself saying – not without pain – that she can no longer call herself a Christian.

Shirley du Boulay has been influential in the religious life of these islands for many years, first as a producer of religious programmes for the BBC and then as the biographer of Cicely Saunders, Desmond Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Bede Griffiths and Abhishiktananda. So her autobiography is a fascinating survey of contemporary spiritual life as it is experienced by increasing numbers of people. Drawn first of all by the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then becoming a Roman Catholic and finally practising Zen Buddhism for over 20 years, she has travelled a long way from her conventional Anglican origins. She writes eloquently and with humility about the complexity of describing a fixed religious identity and talks about how this is true for many people through history. The notion of ‘dual belonging’ or even multiple belonging is not a new one and it is unlikely that the early Jewish-Christians were the first hyphenated believers! Du Boulay makes a strong case for the fluidity of our religious belonging and, in a world where unshakable certainty about religious purity leads to such violence and exclusion, I find it hard to disagree.

But why is it that, given this willingness to embrace plurality of religious identity, she no longer wishes to identify with the Christian church? It is not that she has ‘lost her faith’ or that she does not wish to see the churches flourish, but there are two major factors in her coming to the place where she now finds it impossible to claim that belonging. The first is that the church has failed to meet her spiritual needs. Bill Johnston frequently said that the church must be mystical if it is to make sense to modern people. If the churches do not offer an experience of spiritual depth and a practical approach to exploring such depths, then spiritual seekers will find it cold, doctrinaire and dislocated from their spiritual longings. The second is that the churches have tolerated the abuse perpetrated by members of their own clergy while strongly condemning the loving, committed relationships of their gay members. The commitment of many Christians to justice and peace and to the practice of compassion and inclusion has not been sufficient for people like Shirley du Boulay to find a way past this clear and appalling contradiction. For many people, yes, Christianity has become a toxic brand.

What is the way out? I think that nothing less than a death and resurrection will suffice. A death to the old ways of privilege, exclusion and judgementalism. A death of self-interest and introspection giving way to a new life of humility, service, spiritual depth, openness and joyfully embraced pluralism may be what is needed to present this profound tradition of spiritual truth afresh for our generation.

Franciscan Zen – Practising Poverty

giotto francis renunciation

One of the biblical texts that appears again and again in Buddhist-Christian dialogue is the well-known hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 in which the writer speaks of a Christ who emptied himself. This idea of kenosis is appealing to those who are exploring how Christian understandings of Jesus can interact with Buddhist experience of sunyata (emptiness or void) and it is not unusual for Christian thinkers to see this experience of ‘void’ as closely akin to the experience of God. This depends, in part, on an understanding of kenosis that goes beyond a simple expression of humility in the act of incarnation and sees self-emptying as a fundamental expression of the divine. God is not ‘a being’ but being itself, empty of all form and beyond all description or intellectual apprehension. God is sheer simplicity, complete unity, without beginning or end. The distinctively Christian aspect of this would be to see this divine self-emptying as ‘for us’, an act of transforming love, but an act so complete as to be empty of duality or over-againstness. This is a complete identification with us.

But there is an aspect of this discussion that is of particular interest to Franciscans, and that is the suggestion of the language of poverty in the Philippians hymn (humility, the nature of a slave). Franciscan poverty is akin to Buddhist sunyata in that it is not only a kind of ascesis, and not only a compassionate identification with the poor, but is a mystical state of identification with Christ in his emptiness. It is a letting go of contingent things, a refusal to put one’s trust in objects, status or even ideas. All of these things are fleeting, what abides is loving emptiness. For Franciscans, the life of chosen poverty is not a concept but a practice that involves renunciation both in material terms and in spiritual ones. I think this means that the distinctive character of Franciscan contemplation is a practised renunciation of conceptual thought and the adoption of a posture of complete openness. Openness and emptiness are, I think, the same thing in relation to contemplative or meditative practice.

This is an area where I think Franciscans can take a lesson from Zen Buddhists, particularly those of the Soto tradition that is content merely to sit in a thinking-beyond-thinking. The practicalities of this practice – following the breath, adopting a stable, alert posture, letting go of thoughts as they arise – are all there to help one embody the simplicity of emptiness. In Christian terms, they are there to train us in ‘having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil.2:5). Zen helps me to realise that having such a mind is not a question of thinking and ideas, not even a question of doctrines, but of living a life of spiritual poverty.