Is Our Religion Kindness?

A statement from the Dalai Lama appeared several times in my Twitter feed this afternoon: “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Several people have expressed their belief that Christianity could do well starting from the same point.

I am not so sure.

At the outset, I should point out my dislike for attempts to sum up religion in such simple aphorisms. If Christian faith can be summed up, it is summed up in a person and a story, not in a single virtue, metaphysical belief, or teaching of some wise master. I am not aware of the original context of the Dalai Lama’s remarks, so don’t know whether he was attempting to do this or not, although such an aphoristic style is certainly the preferred form of much Western Buddhism.

While there are undoubtedly statements in Scripture that could be abstracted from context and treated in such a manner, such an employment of the biblical text is not consistent with the general form and tenor of biblical and Christian teaching. In stark contrast to many other religious texts, not least the gnostic ‘gospels’, the canonical gospels are not focused on aphoristic truths, but on a concrete and particular narrative of a Person. Christian religion grows out of a particular historical narrative, is about following Jesus of Nazareth, in whom the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals himself to mankind, and awaiting and working towards his return in glory.

The virtue of kindness is highly valued in Christian practice: it is characteristic of both God’s saving action towards mankind and of the Christ-like character that he is forming in his people. However, making kindness programmatic for Christian religion in the way that the use of the Dalai Lama quote suggests is not a position that I can get behind.

The chief reason for this reluctance on my part arises from my conviction that such an elevation of ‘kindness’ will necessarily tend to occlude certain other virtues that are essential to Christian religion, and probably far more programmatic.

Rosenstock-Huessy has suggested that life operates on four different axes – inward, outward, forward, backward. While this model might be challenged, questioned, and honed in certain respects, I think that it has enough heuristic merit to serve my purposes here. Each of the axes names a different set of relations and the goods, virtues, and modes of activity appropriate to them. For instance, the backward axis can name our relationship with the past. The breakdown of this relationship takes the form of revolution: its maintenance involves respect for tradition and honour for our parents.

The virtue of kindness operates primarily on the inward axis, an axis that values harmony, unity, togetherness, consensus, holism, and a lack of conflict, discord, or disagreement. Buddhist teaching in general, certainly in its Western forms, tends to elevate this inward axis, often questioning the place given to the outward axis.

However, while Christianity has a strong emphasis on the inward axis (e.g. Colossians 3:1-17), there is no less of a strong emphasis upon an outward axis. The outward axis relates us to a realm of otherness, where unity and harmony are not our primary principles of operation.

The Christian elevation of this outward axis shapes our faith and practice in many differing ways. Notions of otherness and non-unity hold a very important place in Christian thought, whether in the Creator-creature distinction, the moral opposition between good and evil, or in the particularism inherent in the Christian understanding of salvation. Whereas a religion built around the inward axis will focus upon such things as non-violence, harmony, and unity above all else, a religion that elevates the outward axis will be far more confrontational and oppositional in its character.

Christian morality, for instance, is not articulated primarily around inner principles of oneness and harmony, but around concepts of truth, justice, and righteousness that are established outside of us by another party, to which we must submit, conform ourselves, and seek to advance within our world. Christianity’s strong inward axis never displaces this. The pronounced outward axis of Christianity presents us with a personal God who stands over against us, a God who is Creator, Lord, Ruler, Judge, Sovereign, Law-giver, who represents and presents us with objective, public, and external standards of truth and morality from without.

This emphasis upon an outward axis means that Christian virtues can have much more of an antagonistic or confrontational cast to them. While an extreme privileging of the inward axis can produce a disengaged quietist tendency and a proneness to inaction, the outward axis is one of engagement, opposition, confrontation, and challenge: it is active, assertive, and even ‘violent’.

It is the risk of losing sight of the importance of this outward axis in Christian thought that concerns me in the suggestion that Christian religion could be summed up in ‘kindness’. Without wanting to displace the inner axis, we need to assert that Christian religion produces oppositions, antagonisms, and antitheses, often where they did not exist before. Christ came, not to bring peace but a sword, to disrupt unity and the harmony of the family and nation, to turn the world upside down. Christ came to overcome the oppressors and set the captives free, to bring down the mighty and raise up the poor, to bring justice and to set the creation to rights.

A religion that truly follows Christ will often appear unkind. It will confront wickedness and evil. It will differentiate and divide. It will be intolerant in areas where conventional morality calls for tolerance. It will denounce oppression and aggressively pursue justice. It will speak out against the pet sins of societies and individuals in stark terms. It will uphold objective and public truths that are resistant to individual desires. It will turn societies upside down. It is often martial in its cast, eschewing the possibility of neutrality and calling all to take a side, provoking decision and the conflict that results from this. Such a religion will frequently step on toes, put people’s noses out of joint, unsettle the world, outrage the powers that be, be disliked and seen as offensive, and intrude into other’s supposed territory: it will, like its Master, be eminently crucifiable.

While Christian religion must also be kind, in making such a virtue programmatic we risk neglecting this outward axis. We risk producing a sort of religion whose presence the world can easily tolerate, a sort of religion that is not proactive in seeking justice, pursuing and teaching righteousness, confronting the powers, and speaking out against evil. Such a religion would make few firm claims to objective truth, nor declare the claims that our Creator has upon his creation, our behaviour, or our societies, such claims displaced by a ‘gospel’ of non-confrontational, tolerant, and passive interiority.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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13 Responses to Is Our Religion Kindness?

  1. CS Lewis commented many decades ago that kindness, although it is a virtue, is the most dominant virtue of our age in the West – therefore, for our age, there is an excess emphasis on kindness that grossly unbalances virtuousness (on the principle that any partial good pursued to excess becomes an evil).

    Furthermore, kindness has become the dominant secular virtue, since it has been assimilated to the secular Leftist goals of universal, equal pleasure, comfort and peace.

    To push kindness even harder than it already has been pushed over many decades in the West, is therefore to promote our easiest and most tempting vice.

    To encourage modern people be even more kind than they already are is equivalent to encouraging Ghengis Khan to ‘get tough’, the Amish to exert more self-control, or Nero to ease-off the guilt tripping, loosen-up and let his hair down!

  2. Becky White says:

    I’m sure many would feel more comfortable with a religion that was basically about being kind, being good or following the golden rule, as all of these things can be done without too much cost to ourselves, and entirely within our own parameters, i.e. we can be the arbiters of what constitutes ‘kindness’ at any given moment. Unfortunately, as you say, it ignores the stumbling block and the cross, and instead is a way for people to carry on believing that they’ll be ok in the end because they’ve ‘lived a good life’ – a dangerous deceit.

    • Yes, ‘kindness’ can be a very subjective virtue, without clear definition or standard to match up to. Also, without an outward-moving and costly ‘neighbour-making’ impulse, it can be a fairly easy virtue to practice.

      I am tempted to post a follow-up post on the subject of love and the manner in which Christian love differs from the sort of kindness that people tend to think of.

  3. cookiejezz says:

    Interesting comments, Alastair – the axes are a new one on me, although I have argued a similar principle in terms of our relationship with God.

    If I had been asked to comment on the Dalai Lama’s saying from a Christian perspective, I think I would have set kindness in context with the other manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit (emphasis on “fruit” – springing from relatoinships with God), but pointed out that our love for others alone is not redemptive: it is love for God (as a product of repentance, salvation and the new birth), and relationship with Him that is the basis of our “religion” (as much as I dislike the word, I’m content to go along with it for the sake of argument). From this basis, kindness to others flows.

    HOWEVER I think that just saying “my religion is kindness” also undermines the role of faith, even to the point of seemingly rendering it disposable. Atheists talk about “decency” and claim the moral high ground, yet their kindness does not spring from acknowledgement of a higher spiritual power or the effect that spiritual power has on human lives. I guess the DL was being somewhat hyperbolic – speaking of the nature of his faith-outlook rather than being narrowly prescriptive about his practices – yet I hear non-religious people make similar statements regularly.

    • Yes, detaching one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit from the rest is bound to lead to problems. Also, as you observe, ‘kindness’ can be problematic and even idolatrous when not related to God.

  4. Pingback: No, My Religion Is Not Kindness « Notes from a Small Place

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  6. ALiason says:

    Wow. I must say that it is pretty awesome to encounter a blog that can discuss Christianity in a way that isn’t “cringe-inducing”. I thank God for this blog and for giving you such a wonderful gift, Alastair. I get so frustrated trying to have enlightened conversations about topics like this…so finding this blog is like being given a cool glass of water on a hot summer’s day.

    As for your post, I think Christians have reached a point where they want to distance themselves from the crazy, super judgmental, angry, mean-spirited, cuckoo-for-Coco Puffs “Christians” who seem to dominate so many conversations. Saying, “My religion is kindness,” is just a way for “good” Christians to distinguish themselves from the “bad” ones. To portray themselves as kindhearted instead of homophobic, evil, intolerant, etc.

    I know I sometimes feel like people will dislike me or jump to all sorts of erroneous conclusions about me if I tell them I am a Christian. I feel like I have to go into over-drive in order to prove that I’m not mean and hateful. Its exhausting. If more people would speak up as to what it truly means to follow all of Christ’s words, I don’t think Christianity would have such a bad wrap. And even if it was still vilified, people wouldn’t mock it because of Christian’s behavior, but because of their own personal failings.

    Anywho, I’m glad to have found this blog. I noticed you a few months ago when you commented on The Good Men Project on the post about premarital sex. I was really happy to see and hear that there are others out there! Ok. I think I’ve done enough rambling. Take care.🙂

  7. John says:

    Hi, I am from Australia. I have been here before.
    It seems to me that kindness or the practice of the Golden rule would be a good place to start.
    Which raises the question as to what did Saint Jesus of Galilee actually teach and demonstrate while he was alive. These 2 references give a unique Understanding (as does the website altogether)
    http://www.dabase.org/up-5-3.htm
    http://www.dabase.org/up-5-1.htm
    And how does one live a comprehensive right life, which necessarily requires real human maturity.
    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/human-maturity.aspx
    http://global.adidam.org/truth-book/true-spiritual-practice-4.html
    Plus these 2 references on the necessary politics of the future – if there is to be a future.
    http://www.ispeace723.org
    http://www.dabase.org/not2p1.htm
    Also on the nature of Reality
    http://spiralledlight.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/4068
    http://www.dabase.org/Reality_Itself_Is_Not_In_The_Middle.htm

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