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True History

It’s been a while since Frederick Buechner made an appearance around here, so I thought today would be as good a day as any to correct this.  I can think of few whose words I would rather have rattling around my brain going into a weekend—especially a weekend where we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent and begin preparing for the arrival of the baby who would shape the course of history.  This is from Wishful Thinking:

Unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, biblical faith takes history very seriously because God takes it very seriously.  He took is seriously enough to begin it and to enter it and to promise that one day he will bring it to a serious close.  The biblical view is that history is not an absurdity to be endured or an illusion to be dispelled or an endlessly repeating cycle to be escaped.  Instead it is for each of us a series of crucial, precious, and unrepeatable moments that are seeking to lead us somewhere.

The true history of humankind and the true history of each individual has less to do than we tend to think with the kind of information that gets into most histories, biographies, and autobiographies.  True history has to do with the saving and losing of souls, and both of these are apt to take place when most people—including the one whose soul is at stake—are looking the other way.  The real turning point in our lives is less likely to be the day we win the election or get married than the morning we decide not to mail the letter or the afternoon we watch the woods fill up with snow.  The real turning point in human history is less apt to be the day the wheel is invented or Rome falls than the day a boy is born to a couple of Jews.

38 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “Unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, biblical faith takes history very seriously….The biblical view is that history is not an absurdity ”

    The introduction here makes me cringe. He did not need to denigrate Hinduism and Buddhism to describe the “turning point in history” from a Christian perspective. He does not understand Hinduism and Buddhism, and to the extent he believes Christianity justifies their denigration, he does not even understand his own religion.

    I think I also hear a put down in the phrase: “the day a boy is born to a couple of Jews.” (Why did he put it this way?Why did he choose this detail for his contrast?)

    He is using cultural, religious and racial identities here in an ugly way.

    Does any of this expression make you cringe too?

    November 27, 2009
    • Well, I suppose if the quote made me cringe I wouldn’t have posted it. I don’t think it’s denigrating Hinduism and Buddhism to point out that they don’t attach the same importance to history as does Christianity, nor do I think it’s a put-down to describe Jesus’ birth the way Buechner does. Most people in the first century (and many since) didn’t think much of Jesus’ humble origins. As I read him, Buechner’s just pointing out that things and people of great importance can come from where you might least expect them.

      November 27, 2009
  2. Ken #

    This takes away my breath.

    November 27, 2009
  3. Gil #

    It makes me cringe to think that noticing the differences between different religions has become offensive.

    November 28, 2009
  4. patrick wilkinson #

    Were do you begin with such a statement? How about an understanding of world religions, east v west and how history is viewed by different religions.
    You can have a religious view, pointing out the important events with regard to the founding, development and spread of a religion. Then you can have a secular history, something a king might want to read in order to understand how things came about in a simple way. Where was he born, who were his parents, what was he like has a child, who was the king at the time. All interesting stuff but of no religious significance. Buddhism has vast and detailed religious history, over 2500 years of it ! It also has a 2500 year secular history, in every country in the east, pick one, Buddhism being the first world religion. Ask a Buddhist Scholar and sit back prepared to listen to a hundred times more history than Christianity!

    November 29, 2009
  5. Paul Johnston #

    If a paragraph is all that is to be given an apologetic, regarding the seriousness of history from the Christian perspective, it’s probably better to make the case on its own terms, rather than by contrast.

    Mr Buechner would do well to first give us some detail as to how Hinduism and Buddhism speak of history before beginning as he does.

    Does he do so in a more complete reading of his work, Ryan?

    Hinduism, Buddhism, the Jewish Essene movement,(a significant influence on the life and times of our Lord), and the Christian monastic traditions share a common experience of God through ascetic living and a disciplined structure of contemplative/meditative prayer.

    Any contrast of belief systems would be wise to first acknowledge this commonality.

    As for the phrase, “a couple of jews”, it does seem carelessly pejoritve. It would lend more integrity to the point of paragraph two, if he would have said a, “Jewish couple”.

    November 29, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, my last paragraph should read as… ” a couple of Jews”.

    November 29, 2009
  7. Gil #

    The basic distinction has nothing to do with whether or not religions have ‘vast and detailed histories’. Nor does it have anything to do with which religion has ‘more history’ than another (as if oldest = best). No one would dispute that these religions have long and distinguished histories. The distinction Buechner and many others have made has to do with the way these faiths view the SIGNIFICANCE of history.

    Christianity’s claims are rooted in particular events which are believed to disclose the final goal of history. The cross and resurrection are believed to be the sign of what will take place ‘in the end’. That is the key distinction; if these events did not take place, Christianity would not exist and any Christian claims to truth would be falsified.

    I’m not aware of any particular event in the history Buddhism or Hinduism that would have, for Buddhists or Hindus, the same kind of implications. The truth claims of these faiths cannot be verified or falsified by historical events because they do not depend upon history. For many people within these faiths (as with contemporary pluralists) the very idea of a universal truth depending on particular historical happenings is nonsensical.

    All of this is merely to suggest that these faiths have different understandings of what history means and where truth is to be found.

    November 29, 2009
    • patrick wilkinson #

      I did not wish to offend anyone or their understanding of faith, or history.
      The significance that a Buddha was born into this world to lead all beings to enlightenment is the center of Buddhist history and for the sake of all those other religions, the birth of their founder means the same thing to them! Not to you, but for them the same meaning and promise of salvation exists. Its important to avoid saying you are great because other human beings are ignorant, when other human beings may not be.

      November 29, 2009
      • Gil #

        You didn’t offend me but I think you missed the central point of what I was suggesting. I have no idea where you got the idea that to suggest a difference in the views of history between these two faiths is to say ‘you are great because other human beings are ignorant.’ I have never said this, nor do I believe it.

        Of course the Buddha is significant to Buddhist history but the historical figure of Gautama Buddha is regarded differently by Buddhists than Jesus Christ is by Christians. As far as I understand, Buddhists regard the Buddha as a supreme exemplar, one who was awakened to a truth that transcends history and, depending on your interpretation, calls for a certain detachment FROM history (since history is full of suffering). The Buddha was awakened to a truth that was already there and that truth was transhistorical. It happened to be the Buddha who discovered this truth but if someone were to prove that the Buddha as an historical figure didn’t exist, this would not change the truths that Buddhism adheres to.

        For Christians it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as an historical event that IS the truth. If it were definitively proven that Jesus did not exist then Christian truth claims fall apart. Again, let me clear: I am not suggesting that this makes Buddhists ignorant I am just saying it points toward a different understanding of history.

        November 29, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, for the qualification, Gil. You help me understand the distinctions better than did Mr. Buechner’s quote.

    Do you think it possible given that Jesus fulfills Torah and in particular co-opts and completes the Essenic tradition of John the Baptist, he can also complete the traditons of the Hindu and the Buddhist?

    Can Hinduism and Buddhism be incomplete but still God inspired?

    November 29, 2009
    • Gil #

      Hi Paul,
      It’s a difficult question you ask. I think the link between Christianity and other faiths is difficult to talk about without appearing patronizing. As is seen throughout this thread, we are quite sensitive to any suggestion of superiority over or even difference between faiths.

      At the same time, it would be strange for the adherent of any religion (or philosophy) to confess something that they didn’t believe to be true for others as well. I don’t think a thoroughgoing relativism is possible so all of us are in the position of making our confession in the context of other options.

      To answer your question as directly as I can: I think God’s inspiration can be found in many places, including the religions that you mention. I believe that God’s purposes and character are seen definitively and uniquely in Jesus Christ. If these beliefs requires the language of ‘completion’ then I’m not sure how to avoid it.

      November 29, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks, Gil. Yeah the question kinda sucks, doesn’t it. 🙂 Full of all sorts of potential insult and bias.

        I’m certain I have no idea how the question would resolve itself other than to say I see in the shared contemplative experience a potential medium through which an answer might be arrived at.

        The particulars of which, I think, would literally require an act of God.

        November 29, 2009
    • patrick wilkinson #

      World views, are different. Religions are different, people and their individual understandings are different.
      Everything in Hinduism is god inspired.
      History, that is a religious world view can’t be separated from the whole by a claim or an opinion that you have the True history and everyone else has a different understanding of history.
      I am sorry to mess up your blog with my comments but other faiths and people of other faiths also have an interest in True history and many would relate to you a relationship with god and with a saviour mirroring your own, it could be like hearing an echo.
      Practice your own faith with diligence and rejoice that others are doing the same.
      The birth, life and death of brahma is the the whole of history to Hindus, its the whole of reality for them. The Buddha or Buddhas are again the whole of the history of the limitless universe. Other religions may have less extensive world views but your can’t claim you are the only person who thinks his little corner of reality is unique. We all suffer from this problem.

      November 29, 2009
      • Gil #

        Once again, you’ve missed the point entirely. This has never been a conversation about ‘uniqueness’ – I’m not sure how much clearer I can be. My only suggestion has been that these faiths view HISTORY differently and that Christianity is bound to particular historical events in a way that Buddhism and Hinduism are not.

        Christianity is not the ONLY religion that conceives of history this way. Judaism depends on the historical revelation of God to Abraham. Islam is similarly bound to historical events concerning the prophet Muhammad. Buddhism and Hinduism simply do not depend on historical truths to the same degree. This is not a radical claim; I’m having a bit of trouble understanding why it’s so problematic for you.

        You seem to see this whole conversation as related primarily to the issue of whether one religion (in this case Christianity) can think itself truer than others. Let me state as clearly as I can: that is not what I was talking about. It is obviously the question that you are most interested in but it is very different question than the one raised above.

        Finally, to suggest that I am a person who “thinks my little corner of reality is unique” is a little disingenuous. Of course you are right in suggesting that we all suffer from the problem of limited perspectives. But this would limit the significance of your views to your little corner of reality as well.

        What you’re basically suggesting is that all of us who think we’re right (especially on religious questions) are limited by our particular unique view whereas you alone have the God’s-eye view from which to coolly evaluate our errors.

        November 29, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        I’ve enjoyed your tone and input Patrick. I hope you would return here. The nature of the blogosphere and testosterone,,,,YEAH!!! TESTOSTERONE!!!….sorry I digress…sometimes leads to talking “at” rather than “to”.

        I think it happened here once before.

        Ryan, my friend I hope you don’t consider my invitation a violation of your person. I am assuming this to something like a frat house bash whereby you invite so in so, so in so invites so in so, a loutish Catholic man of suspect reputation crashes the party….and so on and so forth…

        November 30, 2009
      • My person feels no violation 🙂

        November 30, 2009
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Ken, my friend, I hope you’ve caught your breath. 😉 Your insights are always so valuable to me.

    November 29, 2009
    • Ken #

      Thanks, Paul.

      I don’t really know what to say. I think Bruechner’s expression represents ugly prejudice. Ryan and Gil do not believe it does. I am sure if Ryan thought it did, he would not have posted here without addressing it. I thought that by pointing it out Ryan might see it too.

      Beuchner’s claim that Buddhism and Hinduism do not take history seriously is false. I cannot trace the root of this false idea to its source, but as Gil alluded, it is not Buechner’s invention. Huston Smith expressed something similar to this idea in his Religions of Man (now titled Religions of the World.) He did this in connection with trying to explain what he saw as a greater emphasis on social justice in Judaism and Christianity than in Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. His expression does not strike me as denigrating as Buechner’s does, but it is still a false comparison, as Patrick has noted here. It still represents an ethnocentric claim. I no longer hear this claim in contemporary religion scholarship.

      Mircea Eliade also expressed something similar in The Myth of the Eternal Return, but it was not denigrating. He made a distinction between Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism related to the view of history in the context of explaining the ways various religions have responded to what he called “the terror of history.” He observed the distinction, but then quickly showed how Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism ultimately all deal with history the same way. Although Eliade was and remains an important figure in scholarship related to religion, since his time scholars have become even more sensitive to the problem of ethnocentrism in their work than even Eliade was. That may be why claim about the difference related to the view of history is no longer so common.

      Buechner is likely to be familiar with the writings of both Smith and Eliade. He is of the generation that potentially studied their works in seminary. But neither Smith nor Eliade used this distinction the way he did in the above quotation. I don’t know whether this distinction was ever made or is still made in apologetics textbooks. Smith cited a Methodist pastor and textbook writer named Bernhard Anderson in connection with this idea.

      I would add this. My impression from personal experience with Buddhists and Hindus is that the claim made by Beuchner about Buddhists and Hindus is a false, ethnocentric distinction. Patrick is right about Buddhism and right to react negatively to Buechner quotation here.

      You are right to see connections between these religions related to the monastic traditions. This is born out by those involved in the monastic traditions and by scholars. You are also right in your analysis of Beuchner’s expression in your first posting on this subject above.

      November 29, 2009
    • Paul Johnston #

      Hey Gil, I think it could be the initial Buechner quote and perhaps your first response to it, that is informing Patrick’s rebuttals.

      I don’t know, just a guess.

      Gil, do you think Jesus is interested in having us share our understanding of his revelation with our Buddhist and Hindu neighbours?

      If yes, what would that expression of “true history” look like to you?

      Yeah I know, I’m asking for a book!! 🙂

      November 30, 2009
    • patrick #

      Thank you for your invitation ?
      But I am unsure whether there is any basis here for further input from someone outside your religion.
      Thank you again for the responses.
      Twisting words and inventing meanings is difficult for me,
      I do have friends who delight in such occupations, one is even a philosopher another a PHD in comparative religion.
      I am just a lone solitary contemplator of what seems to make sense to me, not much use when you are required to contemplate what appears to make sense to others.

      November 30, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        Hey Patrick, Paul Johnston, again.

        Patrick, do you think someone can be fully contemplative and fully engaged in community and culture, i.e., “engaged with what makes sense to others” ?

        November 30, 2009
  10. I am wondering if there is a stated or purposeful beginning and end of time in Buddhism and Hinduism?

    November 29, 2009
    • Good question Tyler—one that I think gets to the heart of one of the important differences between “Western” and “Eastern” religions (acknowledging, of course, that these terms are hopelessly broad but still, perhaps, useful as a general reference point). Based on what I’ve studied, the answer would be no. Both view time as essentially cyclical. History is seen to be an endless wheel of suffering and the primary goal is to get off the wheel.

      November 29, 2009
      • Thanks for the reply. I did a bit of net searching after I asked that and what I found echoes your description.
        With that information I do not find any ethnocentrism in the quote and would have to agree with Gil’s sentiments.

        Plus, to not have a slight bias to your own belief would be the most oddest thing of all. So if it is a matter of delivery… then it seems, at least from that quote, to be a slightly over sensitive reaction.

        November 29, 2009
    • patrick #

      Hinduism, Brahma created and continues to create everything.
      Buddhism, it all begins with ignorance.

      You can’t have a cyclic history, everything arises due to previous causes, in Buddhism and Hinduism.

      The state of your awareness, in Hinduism how well you perceive the reality of god.
      in Buddhism how well you perceive reality.

      ps, Buechner is a wonderful man !

      November 30, 2009
    • patrick #

      To Paul,
      The Buddha answered this one, (as well as other contemplatives of other traditions ) ‘remain on your meditation seat and the world will pass by you’, the whole of life will pass before you, in meditation the root of every experience, the foundation of all knowledge.

      People sat in cells and prayed for good reasons, ‘wisdom’, or getting close to God. In the past they were the people you would go talk to!

      November 30, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        I agree that the contemplative has much wisdom to offer. I’ve been spending a lot of time this past year trying to “get my head around” the works of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard of Clairveaux and more modern Catholic contemplatives like Thomas Merton and John Main. Likewise I find a more intense (real?) sense of God’s presence through a contemplative/meditative appoach to prayer as opposed to verbal, intellectualized alternatives. Still must it be an either/or approach to being? Why can’t the self, which is both fully spiritual/interior and fully physical/exterior, experience both domains to their maximum potential.

        It seems to me that Jesus is an example of this kind of person.

        November 30, 2009
  11. I’m finding the righteous indignation around this quote to be a little puzzling. Charges of ethnocentrism, ignorance, falsity, ugly prejudice and whatever else Buechner has been accused of in this thread are strong ones and I’m not sure how they can be drawn out of this quote. Could Buechner have worded things differently? Sure. The quote is 36 years old now so it seems a little unrealistic to expect it to meet our hyper-sensitive postmodern criteria. But making a distinction between Eastern and Western understandings of history isn’t really that radical a thing to do.

    I’ve spent some time studying comparative world religions, I’ve participated in Buddhist ceremonies and services, and based on what I have seen and witnessed and read, I really don’t see how it can be disputed that there is a fundamentally different understanding of history involved in Eastern worldviews. This does not make me (or anyone else who notices it) arrogant or ignorant or prejudiced or ethnocentric or anti-multicultural or unappreciative or any other unpleasant adjective. It’s just an observation, not an evaluation.

    “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven” is evidence of a different understanding of the role played by concrete historical events than, for example, the cycle of Samsara. “He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end” is a very different kind of hope than the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. As Gil alluded to, the claims of, for example, Buddhism are transhistorical in a way that many Christian claims are not (or Muslim or Jewish ones, for that matter—you could just as easily substitute Muhammad’s night journey or Moses’ trip up Sinai for the examples I used above).

    The traditions of western monotheism depend on specific historical events in a way that Eastern traditions do not. Again, this is not an evaluative statement, nor is it some kind of claim that other faith traditions don’t have histories (as if that were possible) or are less honourable or good or anything else. It is a statement about how history operates within different kinds of worldviews (indeed, it’s one of the reasons why there are different worldviews). A linear view of history is different than a cyclical one. Not better. Different.

    (As an aside, it’s interesting to observe that this entire discussion has little to do with what I interpreted Buechner’s point to be in this passage and what prompted me to post the quote in the first place—namely, that “true history” has to do with the “crucial, precious, and unrepeatable moments that are seeking to lead us somewhere.”)

    November 29, 2009
    • Paul Johnston #

      Bravo, Ryan. Like Gil, you have articulated the right responses in language that is both more substantive to the points being made and free from the perception of insult.

      Speaking with some experience, sometimes it is the first thought out of your “mouth” so to speak, that starts all the trouble.

      …”Unlike Buddhism or Hinduism, biblical faith takes history very seriously because God takes it very seriously.”…

      I don’t think it’s a stretch to interpret that to mean that these two world views have a superficial understanding of history and by extension perhaps even a similarly facile relationship with God.

      To a Lectio Devina guy like, Ken. I think the more you would ponder a phrase like that the crankier the mantra’s gonna get. 🙂

      I like what, Gil said about the universal implications of all our confessions… ” At the same time, it would be strange for the adherent of any religion (or philosophy) to confess something that they didn’t believe to be true for others as well.”…

      With regard to your point, I wonder how we can expect as Christians to better articulate a “true history” unless we begin expressing ourselves culturally in distinctively differant ways than the mainstream.

      November 29, 2009
    • Ken #

      Re: “Could Buechner have worded things differently? Sure.”

      On this we agree.

      Re: “making a distinction between Eastern and Western understandings of history isn’t really that radical a thing to do.”

      On this we agree.

      Re: “A linear view of history is different than a cyclical one.”

      On this we agree. (This is the Parmenides/Heraclites distinction.)

      Re: “I really don’t see how it can be disputed that there is a fundamentally different understanding of history involved in Eastern worldviews. This does not make me (or anyone else who notices it) arrogant or ignorant or prejudiced or ethnocentric or anti-multicultural or unappreciative or any other unpleasant adjective.”

      Although I think it can be disputed that there is a “fundamentally different understanding of history involved in Eastern worldviews,” I agree that holding this view as you do does not make you “arrogant, ignorant … or any other unpleasant adjective.”

      I think we mainly disagree in the way we hear Buechner’s expression, but I am not sure we completely disagree on this – I am thinking here of your acknowledgment that he could “have worded things differently.” And you are right to note that the level of sensitivity has changed since he wrote those words. He probably would have worded things differently today too.

      I agree with what you “interpreted Buechner’s point to be.” I am completely sure that is “what prompted” you “to post the quote” and have never doubted it.

      November 29, 2009
  12. Paul Johnston #

    “History is the lie commonly agreed upon.” -Voltaire

    “Since it violates the virtue of truthfullness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgement and decision. It contains the seeds of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.”

    (Cn-2486, CCCB)

    November 30, 2009
  13. Kara #

    Are we missing the forest for the trees, here? As Ryan said, “As an aside, it’s interesting to observe that this entire discussion has little to do with what I interpreted Buechner’s point to be in this passage and what prompted me to post the quote in the first place…” It seems that Ryan’s main point is more to do with finding the wonder and amazement of realizing, as we look back even on our own histories, that life’s defining moments are the small ones, not the over-the-top ones we think they should be, and that God works through those things, not necessarily the TA-DA moments. I think God delights in surprising us that way!

    November 30, 2009
    • [F]inding the wonder and amazement of realizing, as we look back even on our own histories, that life’s defining moments are the small ones, not the over-the-top ones we think they should be, and that God works through those things, not necessarily the TA-DA moments.

      Well said Kara!

      November 30, 2009
  14. Paul Johnston #

    If anybody would like to indulge themselves in a defining small moment, I suggest they bake me some cookies. If there are chunks of chocolate in said cookies, I promise my experience will be wonderful and amazing. 🙂

    November 30, 2009
  15. Always good to read another Buechner post (though I’m still struggling to find the proper way of pronouncing his name – little help?).

    I too am deeply moved by Christianity’s value of human history… especially as our current context has left many of us feeling disembodied from a historical identity. And not only does the Incarnation enter into the vast sweep of human history, it enters into and makes valuable the histories of those whose lives are never recognized, those who are forgotten. God in his entering our world as a baby affirms our histories in all their smallness for he chose to enter the world as a little one unnoticed. In this sense the incarnation makes every birth significant for God incarnate was also born.

    Great post, I am planning to link to it in the near future.

    December 1, 2009
    • Thanks Jessica. I think you are absolutely right both about the disconnectedness from history that is endemic to our cultural moment and the manner in which the Gospel addresses it.

      December 1, 2009
  16. Paul Johnston #

    Jessica….how beautiful.

    December 2, 2009

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