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Buddhism and the Bishop of Woolwich

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by Sangharakshita

... circles, but even in Muslim countries, in Buddhist countries, and in Hindu India. Not only interest, one might even say that the proceedings of these Councils were followed with sympathy all over the world by religious-minded people who knew about them. I must say though that personally I was rather disappointed at the outcome of these Councils and was rather reminded of the saying about the mountain being in labour and producing a mouse, but anyway that is neither here nor there.

So in such a situation I feel it's only natural that some Buddhists at least should be interested in the Bishop of Woolwich and in this very remarkable book of his, Honest to God. If we try to look at it broadly we can understand that in this book he is trying to to come to grips with a problem which all religions have to face and all religious people have to face, though perhaps not to the same degree.

Now what is that problem? That problem, I think we may say is the problem of how to restate traditionally received spiritual truths in such a way, in such a language, as will be meaningful to contemporary humanity. That's the problem. In the case of Christianity perhaps the problem is more acute that it is in at least some of the other religions, and therefore I feel that the case of the Bishop of Woolwich, the example he has given in writing this book is particularly interesting to all of us, including Buddhists, because we see him in this book in a very honest way, we might say even in a very manly way, in a very straight forward way, come to grips, or trying to come to grips with a problem with which Buddhists also, though perhaps not in the same degree are concerned. Now before going onto speak about the contents of this book I might say something in appreciation of the spirit in which it has been written. Almost my first impression on reading this book, even though I read through it on my first reading very rapidly, was that the writer of this book is an intensely sincere person, an intensely honest person. He cares very deeply about the religious, about the spiritual life. But at the same time he is not blind. He is not shutting his eyes to the facts of the contemporary world. And he is intensely concerned that religion should be relevant to life here and now today. But he has at the same time courage to reject, or at least to be willing to reconsider, formulations which have become perhaps a trifle outworn or even out of date. So having, as he does seem to me to have, this sort of spirit, this sort of sincerity, this sort of honesty, I think it's only natural that even though he may not command always the agreement of Buddhists he certainly can command their sympathy and their respect.

Now let me come on to deal with some of the issues which he has raised in his book. I can't of course hope to deal with all of them - though a small book it's rather tightly packed, rather rich in ideas, but I propose to deal with just two or three major ideas which may be of greater interest to Buddhists, just two or three of the major issues.

Now the first of these major issues that we come to and in a way it's the most important so we might as well face it at once is the issue of God, God with a capital G of course. Now historically speaking, traditionally speaking, Christianity is a form of theism. That is to say Christianity accepts the existence of a personal god, a supreme being endowed with all the perfections who is a creator, and the governor of this universe. But we find that in modern times this particular belief, that is a theistic belief, belief in God to put it simply, is coming more and more under attack. There are many people in the world today, many people in this country today, even many people in the churches today, who are deeply and sincerely religious but who feel that the theistic idea, the traditional, the conventional idea, of God is not only completely unacceptable but even sometimes completely meaningless - it just doesn't mean anything to them at all. Now it's important to realise here that we are not only dealing with the non religious people but even with the religious ones. That even many of those who are deeply profoundly religious, who have a truly spiritual attitude towards life in this country and in the churches, find that the traditional theism of Christianity which has been with it from the beginning so far as we can see is unacceptable and even as I've said meaningless.

Now I feel that it is one of the greatest merits, if not the greatest merit, of the Bishop of Woolwich that he has had the courage to face up to this fact and to try to take it into consideration even to try to do something about it. But he's faced the facts, which must be very terrible facts for a Christian to have to face, that what was for hundreds of years the most cherished conception of the whole Christian church, all the churches in fact, the idea of God has suddenly, or so it seems to us at present, suddenly lost it's significance, lost it's meaning - become if not merely meaningless even to some extent ridiculous.

Now in the second chapter of his book Honest to God he deals with this question, the chapter is called `The End of Theism' and its cast in the interrogative. But though it's so cast in the course of this chapter it seems to me that the Bishop does not leave us very much in doubt that in his opinion traditional theism is finished.

He goes into this in considerable detail and I need not repeat all the different steps of his argument. He say that to begin with, at the beginning of the scientific period in modern thought, the conception of a God up there in heaven above the earth became unacceptable and was replaced, gradually, intensively, by the conception of a God as it were `out there', beyond, someone transcendent, away from this world. Now these ideas of his are of course not original. He is quite obviously indebted, as he himself admits quite openly, to Tiddick(?) and also to Bonhoefer. But his originality consists, it seems to me, not in what he has said, because that has been said before, but in the fact that whereas before it was said, or written rather, in the pages of obscured and learned journals, in the exchange almost of confidences between professional theologians and scholars, the Bishop has had the courage to drag, practically, the whole issue right out into the open almost, as it were, into the marketplace. Despite many changes which have taken place in the West and in the church in those churches which are, as we call them, episcopal, a Bishop still does command very great respect and even very great authority. And the fact that the Bishop of Woolwich, being a Bishop, shows publically to espouse these particular views, which he knew were very controversial, but which he espoused because he honestly believes in them and felt that they had to be made more public, that they are to be brought more emphatically to people's notice, that people had to give them serious consideration, that someone had to say it, it rather seems to me that the Bishop is not unlike the little boy in the well known fairy story, the story of the Emperor's clothes.

As you know, most of you I'm sure from your childhood memories, there is the story about the Emperor who engaged two people to weave him for his coronation new clothes, but they just bluffed him, they fooled him. They told him that these clothes were so marvellous, so wonderful that only the pure, only the virtuous could see them.

So the Emperor himself and his ministers didn't like of course to admit that they weren't pure, weren't virtuous, so they pretended that they saw the clothes. So the result was that when the Emperor came to walk in his coronation procession he walked without any clothes at all. But everybody joined everywhere in the conspiracy, and at last only one little boy, the voice of a little boy, piped up and said, `But daddy, he hasn't got any clothes!' So to my mind, without any disrespect that is exactly what the Bishop of Woolwich has done. People were thinking that they believed in God, that they accepted God, that God was the path of their creed, the old conventional traditional conception, but he has the courage, he has the honesty, he has, as it were, the childlike quality to get up and say `but you know, we don't really believe in God, do we?' And the repercussions are of course continuing even now and the Bishop himself has made clear from time time to time.

So there's his originality so far as one can see. A lonely voice of truth within the church.

In his later book, that is The New Reformation, quite recently published, he's got an appendix headed `Can a truly contemporary person not be an atheist?' Now this seems a very startling sort of question for a bishop to ask. He not only asks it but he gives a quite definite answer and in the course of his answer he concedes, as far as I can see, that: in the first place God is intellectually superfluous; secondly that he's emotionally dispensable, and thirdly that he's morally intolerable. He concedes all this.

Now again for a Bishop to concede so much well what are we coming to?! A hundred years ago when poor Bishop Correnso(?) of Natal dared to state publically that he didn't think that the first five books of the Old Testament were really written by Moses - I forget whether he was actually excommunicated but there was certainly a lot of talk about it. He was declared practically a heretic. Well some people might like to excommunicate the poor Bishop of Woolwich and some people certainly think him a heretic. But whether one agrees with him or not one can certainly admire his courage.

Now the question arises where does all this lead? Where does it all tend? Now in effect, and I don't know, I'm not sure, whether this was in the Bishop's mind when he wrote his book, ...

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