Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christus Victor and Tonglen

There is a book that was written some time ago called CHRISTUS VICTOR by Gustaf Aulen. This Swedish theologian was one of the few who deeply questioned the "propitiation theory" of the atonement. This theory has several forms to it and is usually behind evangelical Christianity saying "Christ died for your sins". It is worth mentioning a few of the variations of this theory, because historical Christianity believed them all at one time or another. The main version is that we have violated the moral commandments of G_d so badly that we all deserve to roast in the fiery depths of eternal damnation forever and ever and that G_d was going to throw us into this fiery pit when we die. Then Jesus came, took on all the punishment that we would have had to endure, paid the price, and released us from this judgment. Being the "son of G_d" allowed him to endure the infinite torture of such a punishment. One variation of this teaching is that we all inherited "original sin" from Adam, a kind of genetic and family lineage kind of sin, and that we were doomed from birth to burn in hell forever. Another variation is that somehow the devil has a claim on us because of sin and has a right to take us to eternal hell when we die, that Jesus did not paid the price of our sins to G_d but to the devil.

This propitiation theory is the main reason why evangelical Christians believe that all the other religions are false paths and that Jesus is "the only way", and that no matter how good people of other religions seem to be that they have sinned or inherited enough sin to be doomed to burn in hell forever, and that their religions cannot save them.

There are problems with this theory, both philosophically and historically. Many evangelical theologians are aware of them and have evolved supportive beliefs and arguments to justify the issues this theory creates. One is that the theory violates all sense of "just proportion" that the punishment must fit the crime. It is part of our sense of justice that a finite sin should not have an infinite punishment. It is also hard to imagine anything that a baby who dies in childbirth could do to sin enough to deserve to be tortured for eternity, especially from a religion that does not even believe that one has past lives to commit such sins in. This dilemma is resolved by introducing the idea that you still go to heaven if you die before you reach the "age of responsibility", though it is unclear when exactly this is in the life of a human. Does it mean upon entering adulthood? Or does it mean when you are 6 years old and have some power to choose? Another problem with this is that it is hard to not justify slaughtering nonbelievers before they reach this age of responsibility so that they can avoid going to hell when they die. It seems some evangelicals sometimes did this, killing many native americans and heretics after being tortured into accepting Jesus (in early American history and in some parts of European history). After all, if the stakes are so high that a person will suffer for more than a few quadrillion years, what we all do in the short lifespans that humans seem to have is largely irrelevant, and saving humans (by torture and brainwashing to believe the right beliefs) so that they experience infinite bliss forever...well, they will thank you later.

There are three other problems with the propitiation theory. If Jesus paid the price, then why is believing he did so important. If I pay the bail for my son who is in prison, for instance, it does not matter if the son believes what I did, the price is still paid and the person still gets out. In a similar problem, why is it that I can inherit sin from Adam without believing in the sin? So I get sin without believing in it and do not get forgiveness unless I do believe in it. This seems a bit unfair, especially if G_d is putting people into wombs that are going to get aborted so that I go straight to hell before I get a chance to repent or I go straight to heaven before I get a chance to not repent (the age of responsibility theory), while others who just reach the age of responsibility and get run over by a car then have to go the eternal hell because their mothers did not abort them when it was "safe".

The third problem is that it seems that G_d does not seem to need to expend its wrath on some innocent being in order to forgive someone. This is one reason why many Jews do not believe in the validity of Christianity, because the premise that G_d must torture to forgive does not make sense to them. It also did not make sense to Jesus either who taught to forgive people because they did not know what they were doing. He does not say forgive them because I have taken on the torture that they deserved. Jesus teaches people to "be merciful as Abwoon is merciful", in other words to forgive without needing to torture anyone or to vent our wrath upon anyone. We release our condemnation upon people through choosing to love them unconditionally. Jesus likens the mercy of Abwoon to the sun which shines and the rain which falls upon all unconditionally, Jew and Gentile, righteous and unrighteous, saint and sinner, believer and nonbeliever, male and female.

The propitiation theory, according to the research of Gustaf Aulen, only takes systematic form as late as the 1400s. Before then, there was no propitiation theology, just some slogans like "Christ died for your sins". For some reason, very few protestant Christians questioned this dogma or asked if it was biblical. Saint Anselm was the first to give this idea full formulation in the 1400s. He was disturbed by the lack of just proportion between finite sinning and infinite punishment both in terms of intensity and duration, and evolved the theory of propitiation to address this issue.

To bring these issues down to Earth, imagine that someone does something wrong to me and comes to me to ask me to forgive him or her. Imagine I say, "Yes, I will, but first I must vent my righteous wrath upon my pet cat for the sin that you committed against me, and furthermore you must believe in the sacrifice the cat made for you so or otherwise when you die you will be subject to my wrath anyway, and I should torture you anyway, because a distant relative of yours sinned a long time ago." If you heard this, you would consider me pretty insane and also that I did not really get it about "forgiveness".

From a Buddhist viewpoint, the problem has to do with having a personal god or anthropomorphic idea of god. In Buddhism, there is the Dharmakaya instead. This is a vast impersonal energy field which permeates the universe and which is loving, wise, and creative and which allows all the quantum physical laws to operate with consistency and order. One of the laws within this field is the "law of karma." It is reflected in the Newtonian law that for every action there is an equal opposite reaction. In Buddhism, this principle does not merely work with physical matter, but also mental and emotional matter, and therefore governs how our choices link with the effects that ripple out and come back from those choices. Like the law of gravity, too, there are other laws that allow us to fly. There is the law of karma and the law of grace. Unconditional love can neutralize karma.

If you do not take the propitiation theory too literally, you have a story or parable about grace and forgiveness. Gustaf Aulen has a favorite verse, "G_d was in Christ reconciling the world to itself." He points out that Jesus is healing people because of this loving energy and evens says, "I have not come to condemn the world". He believes, too, that whatever Jesus does on the Cross, he creates "mercy seat" from which he can still heal to this day. The propiation theory has a hard time explaining how Jesus can heal before he pays the price for sin and has evolved an explanation that he had a kind of credit card where he could charge to his account with the creditors anticipating a lump sum payment in the future on the cross. But nowhere does Jesus ask anyone he heals to have faith in his future sacrifice. He is able to heal people who do not believe in this dogma. The propitiation theory also has trouble with the emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus. To propitationists, the crucifixion is really all that matters, the paying of the price, and usually the resurrection is seen as a kind of "proof" to having paid the price at best. But resurrection does not really prove this. Regular medicine has revived many clinically dead people and it would not prove that they paid the price for the sins of anyone. The resurrection, though, is grace transcending the karma of death itself and would prove that even death can be healed.

There is a practice in Buddhism called "Tonglen" which means "exchanging". This is where a person takes on the karma of another person and burns it in his or her energy field. Guatama Buddha, according to some Buddhist traditions, had an immortal physical body, but took on enough planetary karma so that his body could die. He dedicated the merit of this sacrifice to the well being of the Buddhist Sangha so that meditation on to liberation would be easier. He did not require faith in what he did and kept this sacrifice relatively secret. Many Buddhist masters have done this level of tonglen, like Milarepa and the previous Karmapa. The latter had scientists examine his body as he was dying and the scientist saw one disease after another move through his body as if he was taking on plagues so that humanity would not have to suffer through them. He seemed to be healing each plague inside himself until his body got exhausted enough to die. My sense is that this is what Jesus was doing during his crucifixion tonglen. It is a powerful advanced practice and, yes, it is centered around a sacred way of breathing (you intentionally breathe in dark energy, let your heart transmute it, and then breathe out compassion, appreciation, and gratitute as white light energy). This practice of exchanging deeply releases our "ego clinging" by doing the reverse of what we are normally trying to do (seek pleasure and avoid pain). This viewpoint would also explain a verse in Saint Paul, which I think is in his epistle to the Romans, where he says, "in order to make up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings". There is still more planetary karma to take on and heal. In the propitiation view, all sin got wiped out. Buddhists would be puzzled, because when you remove the cause, then the effect ends. If all the sin is wiped out, then negativity and sorrow should not exist on this planet. If the "price is paid", then the prisoner is out of his or her prison. It is very clear that Christians still suffer from the three poisons of the mind (craving, negativity, and delusion) which are the root karmas that cause the effect of suffering.

The word for "grace" in Buddhism is called "tariki" which means "other power" (versus self power). This is seen as a fire which burns away karma on the level of the samskaras or imprints in our subconscious mind. These need to be released in a meditation or healing process. It is our part in our healing process. This would be explained in some of the verses in the epistles of Saint Paul, especially in Galatians, where he says, "Keep on yielding in the breath and you will keep on being saved." Greek has an extra tense than English, called the Aorist tense, which is more process oriented. The verse is usually translated, "Yield in the Spirit, and you will be saved" as if it were a one time event. But the Progressive tense in English is the most like the Aorist tense in the Greek and ideally we should be translating more this way. The Amplified Bible does.

In this process view, part of what we need to do is forgive others in order to be forgiven. If we see that they did not know what they were doing when they sinned, then we can see that we did not either. We apply the process to others through doing tonglen with them and for them. Then Jesus "taking on the sins of the world" becomes something that we also do as part of our own healing process, just as it was part of his. As we do this, then we have "faith in the process". Jesus becomes an "evolutionary accelerator" for this process because he goes all the way to the very end.

The Buddha, by teaching the 12 nidanas, the 12 interrelated causes of sorrow, he kept the understanding of this process psychological. The first sermon he speaks has a kind of summary of this process:

A person's life arises with his or her thoughts,
speak or act with an impure mind,
and trouble will follow you,
as sure as a cart follows an ox.

A person's life arises with his or her thoughts,
speak or act with a pure mind,
and happiness will follow you,
as sure as your shadow.

"Look at how he or she abused me, abandoned me,
betrayed me, and hurt me,"
dwell in such thoughts, and you live in pain.

"Look at how he or she abused me, abandoned me,
betrayed me, and hurt me,"
let go of such thoughts, and you live in peace.

Hatred never cast out hatred,
only love casts out hatred,
this is the dharma,
ancient and inexaustible.

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