“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, March 29, 2010

Comparing Christianity to Buddhism's "Four Noble Truths"

...Actually to just three of them, in this case. I am by no means familiar with Buddhism, but the little I do know makes for an interesting comparison to Christianity. The following are among the "four noble truths" of Buddhism:

  • Suffering is part of life. Christianity affirms this wholeheartedly. Read the book of Job, read the Psalms, read Jeremiah - suffering is a fact that the Bible doesn't shy away from, especially in the New Testament. The apostle Paul even writes that "we are… heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Romans 8:17, see also Philippians 3:7-11, 2 Timothy 3:12, Acts 14:22, Colossians 1:24, Philippians 1:29). Through suffering we can participate in Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection, bearing the image of our Savior and the Author of our faith, and reflecting that light to the world. Of course, suffering is far from the whole story, as we will see.
  • Suffering is caused by desire, either in the form of an unsatisfied desire for some pleasure, or an unsatisfied desire for the ending of some pain. I am not sure if I have understood this point entirely correctly, but, as I have stated it here, it is obviously true.
  • Suffering ends when desire is given up and fades away. One can then attain liberation and enlightenment. This is the main point that I want to discuss in this post.
Hypothetically, I suppose that if one's desires (whether positive or negative) where to go away, so would suffering. Christianity, however, gives a radically different answer to suffering, an answer that doesn't sacrifice something so good. Desire is to be embraced and pursued - this is at the heart of Christianity. We were made to know God, and that knowledge and love will in the end give more joy than this world could ever offer. It is this joy of knowing, seeing, and loving God for all that he is, and of bearing his image and drawing near to him as sons and daughters, that the Christian is to pursue with all his might.

John Piper really explains this well in books like Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, and When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. Notice the pattern? Desire and God go together. God is a fountain of infinite joy, and he gave us being so that we could partake in that joy. In Piper's words, Christianity is hedonistic in the sense that it's about pursuing joy - not simple happiness per se, but the ultimate joy that is defined by God and inseparable from God. Consider Jonathan Edwards' resolution at age 19: "Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power; might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of."*

How does suffering fit into this? I've suggested in these posts that a suffering and pain-filled world, and specifically the suffering of God on the cross, makes possible a far greater eternal joy than what would otherwise have been, an eternal reward in comparison to which all the genocides and tortures of history are nothing (this by no means trivializes suffering - it is a relative comparison). This world is broken and marked by pain, but God is in the business of healing and renewing it. Suffering has to be a part of that rebirth and renewal, and of our rebirth, for we are being made new just like creation, and suffering serves, in part, as a refining fire that transforms us into the people God made us to be. There is suffering that is redemptive and gives birth to joy, even making the sufferer more capable of joy. (Here perhaps Buddhism is not so far from the truth when it speaks of a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In reality, though, it's not an endlessly repeating cycle that must be escaped, but more of a linear, non-repeating path that we are called to follow. There is a rebirth that is not followed again by death, but rather limitless growth.)

Of course, this joy that the New Testament speaks of is only partially given in this world, and "if in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Although there is, I think, a surpassing God-centered joy that can be attained in this life, and can be enriched by suffering, it is largely "treasures in heaven" that we store up. This seems to be what Edwards means by "in the other world." Pursuit of this eternal joy means making earthly sacrifices, but again, suffering can even now give birth to joy:
  • "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” (James 1:2)
  • "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." (Romans 8:18)
Christianity, then, is radically different from Buddhism in its understanding of both suffering and desire. Suffering is (like death) not to be evaded or escaped, but accepted, even at times embraced, for it serves a redemptive purpose for a greater good (for more thoughts, see "Death and Resurrection, Part V"). And desire, which, though it may manifest itself in different ways, at its root can be traced back to a longing for our Maker, is to be pursued, even sought like a treasure. Since it is part of our very being, desire can never fully fade away, and therefore suffering can only end when our desires are satisfied. That fulfillment of our longing is what we were made for - knowing and being with God (see "Whispers of Eternity").

Far from sacrificing desire to flee pain, we are to pursue it with our utmost efforts, even if that means passing through suffering. To give up that great pursuit in order to achieve the "liberation" of transcending suffering can, I think, be a very sad thing. Suffering, while bad in itself, has a way of paradoxically turning into joy. Consider Paul's words "as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6:10), or Jesus' "unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). God works in mysterious ways.

*Of course, this does not mean indulging oneself in sensual pleasures without limit. That would be sacrificing a greater long-term joy for fleeting and momentary pleasures. C. S. Lewis wrote, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased" (The Weight of Glory).

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