Sunday, April 20, 2014

Doubt on Easter Sunday

Lancelot Andrewes. Bodleian Library

This Easter Sunday morning I listened to a reading of a sermon entitled “Doubt on Easter Sunday,” by Lancelot Andrewes, originally given in the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. Bishop Andrewes felt that intellectual doubt (or infidelity, as he called it) about the factual basis of Christian faith was the greatest problem of his time. For Andrewes, 1600 was already “the dregs of time,” when the faith of the early Church had faded away. I guess he might consider that the dregs have travelled through the sink-hole and been sucked well down the drain by now, although in some respects, his argument seemed quite contemporary.

The bishop examines the account of Christ’s resurrection with an eye for evidence to counter doubt. He points out how slow the twelve disciples were to accept the resurrection: even after they had seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes, they were “jealous of their own senses” and struggled to believe. Thomas took this reluctance to another level by insisting on touching, not merely seeing the flesh of Christ before he would believe. Only once convinced of the resurrection by evidence in multiple, mutually confirming forms did the disciples go out to spread the good news. How then were they able to overcome the doubts of listeners who had not seen or touched the resurrected Christ personally? The disciples had neither worldly power, nor rhetorical skill; they were destitute, weak, uneducated men. But they had a more powerful, compelling way to overcome doubt: they were able to perform miracles, immediate evidence that the greater miracle they had themselves witnessed was true.

Christian faith, on this account, is originally based on the direct testimony of eyewitnesses (and one fingerwitness). Miracles provide ‘evidence-based’ proof that there is more to reality than secular science can explain. This suggests that in spite of their apparent opposition, Christianity and science have a key feature in common. They both present evidence to support their theories/doctrines, and anyone who accepts this evidence and understands its implications can join the community of true believers. Independent reflection and belief are at the core of both Christian and scientific worldviews, at least by the time Lancelot Andrewes wrote his sermon. As systems of evidence-based belief, both Christianity and modern science have been able spread rapidly and democratically; there is no need to belong to any particular cultural group to participate.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1601-1602)
This account of Christian doubt and faith reminds me of the way Buddhism is often presented in the West. A rather loosely translated passage from the Kalama Sutta is widely reproduced (I remember coming across it pinned to the wall in a kuti in Santi Forest Monastery in Bundanoon); it claims that the Buddha told the Kalamas:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Bodhipaksa calls this a “calamitous misreading” and compares it with a more scholarly translation of the sutta:

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

The two versions both emphasize the importance of “knowing for yourself” through personal experience, observation and reflection. However, the first, more popular version both fails to bring out the warning against speculative reasoning that is given here and in other early Buddhist suttas, and more generally presents belief as the central concern of the teaching, rather than the assessment and cultivation of qualities of mind.

This interpolated focus on belief appears to be the product of a Western bias which could be informed by either a Christian or a scientific worldview, given their shared interest in the question of how to form true beliefs. This is not to suggest that the translator’s intent was to assimilate Buddhist to Christian teachings. On the contrary, this slant allows the Buddhist teaching to appear as a competitive alternative to the Christian approach, since in spite of Bishop Andrewes’ efforts, these days many see Christianity as demanding belief based on blind acceptance of authority, in the absence of evidence, even in the absence of comprehension. As Madeleine Peyroux sings, “They preached the gospel down in New Orleans, they preached it at school. Never made much sense to me, wonder if it was supposed to…”
The idea that the Buddha, like a scientist, does not ask us to believe anything unless and until we are personally convinced of its truth is attractive to the modern mind. On the other hand, if Buddhism adheres to the same methods as science, and is in the same business of generating rational, well-supported beliefs, then it seems likely that science will supersede it just as, for many, it has superseded Christianity. Why not just stick with science?

The more scholarly translation of the sutta is richer, not only in that it is more authentic, but also in that it indicates that Buddhism might be less concerned with beliefs than with certain qualities of mind, and consequently teach a form of enlightenment that is qualitatively different to that of science. In spite of the overt emphasis on belief in Christianity, I suspect that this is true of living versions of that religion, too.

William Blake, Christ Appearing to the Apostles after the Resurrection (1795)