March 14, 2014

Encountering the Faith of Others

            Everybody is here now as the create cohort arrived Thursday afternoon from Bangkok.  It is wonderful to see them as they meet the Doctor of Ministry students and turn eagerly to new vistas in Myanmar.
            As the hot overhead sun turned to cooler, lingering hues, the Central pilgrims visited Buddhism’s holiest site in the land, the Shwedagon Pagoda.  Although I have visited it on many occasions, I go with the students and faculty colleagues because I want to observe how they attend this radically other sacred space and religious practice.  I also want ever to cultivate the disposition of a learner.

            Neither shoes nor socks can be worn anywhere in the shrine, so one begins this encounter with tender feet and a certain vulnerability. Our able guide led us through milling crowds, many of whom had come to make a drink offering (at the site that commemorates their birth-day), offer flowers, sit in meditation as a monk intones sacred texts, or simply reflect on the life of Gautama the Buddha, the one who had received enlightenment.
            I had a conversation with one of my fellow learners struggling to grasp the essential core of this long tradition, which derives from Hinduism in north India. He was respectful, asked thoughtful questions, but was frankly puzzled about all he was trying to engage.  I reminded him that they do not see the Buddha in the same way that Christians view Jesus Christ.  There had been several who carried the title Buddha prior to Gautama, and Buddhists make no claim that he is the Word made flesh, which would be a foreign concept.

            There are thirty-five protocols to follow when portraying the Buddha, such as feet with no arches, long ears from the weight of hearing wisdom, rounded finger tips, and ultimately an androgynous appearance.  The goal of these protocols is to make this figure unlike ordinary humans, a distinct difference from Christianity’s emphasis on Jesus as truly one of us.
            The Christian belief that God took on human form in Jesus Christ is a distinguishing characteristic of our faith; further, Christians claim that God reveals the divine self as Source, Son, and Spirit, Triune in identity and function.  The Trinitarian life of God shares a history with humanity and reveals redemptive intent for the whole creation, another distinction.
            It is clear that we sharpen our understanding of our own faith as it is juxtaposed to that of others.  As I write early Friday morning, my iPhone chimes to tell me that the Jewish Feast of Purim begins tonight.  My own faith as a Christian is rooted in this earlier tradition of Jewish forebears and could not exist without retaining this heritage. Christianity and Buddhism come from very different sources and can gain from respectful exchange.   

 Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church,and serving humanity.

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