Sharing Jesus Effectively in the Buddhist World, A Review

June 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

In Sharing Jesus Effectively in the Buddhist World, M. S. Vasanthakumar’s observes:  “Theologically, Buddhism and Christianity differ to a great extent. While Buddhist tenets are based on human comprehensions, Christian doctrines are derived from the supernatural revelation of God.  According to Buddhism human beings are capable of attaining nibbana by their own efforts, but Christianity sees all people as sinners who cannot do anything for their salvation, apart from the gracious atonement of Jesus Christ.  Even the ultimate objectives of both religions do not reach the same destination.  In Buddhism people are strived to get rid of the endless cycles of birth and death.  Christianity, on the other hand offers eternal life to believers.” (66)

The first thing that stood out to me from the book was that there are 274 varieties of Buddhism (10), so establishing a single mindset within Buddhism would seem to be difficult. The second thing that jumped out to me was the ways Jesus has been shared ineffectively due to the difficulties with conceptual equivalents, cultural adaptability, scientific witness (social justice), ritual practices, folk religion and how Buddhist leaders have been able to use the weaknesses of each approach against us. The biggest tensions that come through the text are the ideas of the soteriological (salvation) versus the philosophical (existence) (60) and human comprehension versus supernatural revelation.

There were a few points in the book where I would emphasize caution. The two that come to mind most quickly are the places in the book that emphasize the interest of Buddhists in practical outcomes of religion and to focus on the benefits and help of Christianity in addressing everyday problems (63, 173, 180, 186), and the emphasis on multi-individual, mutually interdependent conversions used in the process of people movements (161, 285, 329). I would caution that we need to be careful to make sure we present the full Gospel message and that disciples are called to take up their cross as well as to receive the benefits of the kingdom. Second, I would caution that we need to better discern the benefits and costs for individual and group conversion and need to be careful that individuals make a personal confession of faith and enter into a personal relationship with God through Jesus.

There were also many creative possibilities that jumped out to me in the reading beyond what has already been discussed in prior weeks. The first possibility I will focus on are tapping into Thai values distinct from Western culture to build the indigenous church. Thais don’t have a strong notion of wasting time, they don’t separate work and play, they value harmony through hierarchy and rank, and understand that spiritual growth is more important that amassing wealth, and are highly interdependent (161-165). These differences could be a point of focus to build the indigenous church.

The second possibility of using morals and ethics to make an argument against the use of lying, manipulation in Buddhism (143), and also the use of desire and indulgence in Tantric Buddhism. The gentle strength approach present the Buddhist term upaya that parallels the Christian concept of gentleness, in that out of compassion for the untutored it labors to present its message in ways they will understand. However, it differs from the Christian ministry model in that it consciously employs untruth and manipulation to do so (143). While it is not necessarily or even primarily immoral, Buddhism seems to be potentially so (145). This presents a great opportunity to present the morals of the Bible in that Christians must not “do evil that good may result” (Rom. 3:8).

The final possibility is the use of local beauty, art and architecture to counter the abhorrence and aversion used by Tantric Buddhism to achieve the transcendence of self (143), and also to affirm the expression of new communties of faith (238). Although there are instance of negative imagery in the Old and New Testaments the primary focus is rather overwhelmingly positive. “Christian contemplation is not primarily revulsion from an ugly something, with no clear objective of where to go, but rather attraction toward an object (the person of Christ) (146).

The key differences in theological concepts (168-170) are that Theravada Buddhism has atheistic ideas while Christians are theistic, people rely on a Power outside of themselves. Theravada Buddhism holds the impermanence of world while Christians have an unchangeable Christ and an unshakeable Kingdom. Theravada Buddhism centers on humans, their needs and efforts while Christianity centers on God, his purpose and his provision. Theravada Buddhism holds nothing eternal or immortal inside the human body, no permanent ego while Christianity believes that human beings have eternal souls, individual existence and self-hood are real. The basic teaching of Theravada Buddhism is that of suffering, while the basic problem of the Christian is that of sin.

The chapter on difficulties in depicting the deity of Christ was eye opening. The chapter illustrated the Buddhist mind giving the lowest position to Jesus Christ as a primitive person with an irrelevant message using Christian borrowings of Buddhism to establish ethical norms (pure Buddhism) who is inferior to Buddha, lacking in deity and espousing a religion that is unscientific. One possibility to overcome this difficulty would be to focus on Christ’s authority (versus his love) through the gentleness and meekness approaches presented in the book.

I agree with the books suggestions that missionaries should develop an appreciation for the wisdom of Buddhist precepts by recognizing the religious instinct without condemning the many good things in Buddhism. Finally, missionaries should articulate a wide-missiology by using a non-confrontational preaching method, giving up a colonial identity and developing mutual relationships with Buddhists to learn from each other. However the book does warn against both syncretism and philosophical pluralism which entail an intellectual laxity resulting in a bland acceptance of almost everything (112). Converts from Buddhism to Christianity most often have experienced the care and concern of Christians, particularly when facing some problem (171).

The strongest part of the book for me was the explanation of the historical factors that has brought on the theological difficulties such as Christianity being forced on Sri Lankans and the Buddhist response that “there must be something defective or unreal in a religion which required coercion and persecution to enforce its adoption” (73) (Tennent 1998:70) with missionaries seeing education as means of conversion (deSilva 1987:195). The major concern of the colonial rulers had been commerce and not religion, and the Portuguese spread their religion with the hope that the citizens of the conquered country would be faithful to the king of Portugal and would not become a hindrance to their commercial enterprise (75). Therefore in the Buddhist mind Buddhism is superior to Christianity, the former is devoid of selfish gain and the later is full of corruption, exploitation, and injustice (77).

Due to the historical mistakes, Jesus Christ has been perceived as an imperialist, who “supports the whole process of colonization and domination” (Wessels 1990:75). Debates that inspired a revival in Buddhism and hardheartedness towards Christianity (77). “It should not be forgotten that the initial efforts of the missionaries to propagate Christianity did not encounter opposition.” Challenging a concept or a doctrine of other religions just to disprove and condemn it often brings similar criticisms and even unanswerable arguments against one’s own faith (83).

I agree with the books suggestions that missionaries should attempt to contextualize the Christian message to Buddhists. Christian missiology should begin with anthropology and not with theology (85). A terminological approach employs Buddhist terms to communicate the Christian message well and convince the Buddhists about the Christian gospel (85). A theological approach uses theological concepts from Buddhism to present the Christian message to Buddhists (87). A practical approach uses the contradiction between philosophical and practical Buddhism to convince Buddhist laity about the tenets of Christianity (88). Missionaries should issue an apology for past wrongs done to Buddhism (91).

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