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.