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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 67-76

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Double Religious Belonging:
A Process Approach

Jay McDaniel
Hendrix College

Increasingly, Christians in the United States are turning to Buddhism for spiritual insight and nourishment. Many are reading books about Buddhism, and some are also meditating, participating in Buddhist retreats, and studying under Buddhist teachers. As they do so, they approach what might be called "dual religious belonging."

The phrase itself can suggest at least three metaphors. We can imagine them (1) as people crossing a bridge into the world of Buddhism and who then return to Christianity with fresh insights; or (2) as people with two intravenous tubes in their arms, one providing fluid from a Buddhist lineage and one providing fluid from a Christian lineage, for the sake of a more complete life; or, shifting to a more organic metaphor, (3) as people with primary roots in Christian soil but with secondary roots in Buddhist soil, who receive anchorage and sustenance from both kinds of soils.

Shortly I will draw upon the third metaphor to suggest the desirability of a "taproot" as opposed to a "fibrous" approach for such double belonging, at least in its initial stages. First, a word is in order about the philosophical backdrop for my approach, which draws upon the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and its theological counterpart, process theology. Toward this end, I will draw upon the first metaphor: the bridge.

A Bridge for Double Belonging

Process theology emerged in the 1930s at the University of Chicago and has since been used by many Christians and some Buddhists, mainly but not exclusively Pure Land Buddhists, to interpret their respective religious perspectives. I myself have used this theology in several books to try to show how Christians can draw deeply from the wells of Buddhist insight and practice in ways that enrich and deepen Christian life.

Process theology draws upon the "philosophy of organism" developed by the late philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead's philosophy is unique in that it has deep similarities with numerous Buddhist points of view even as it also offers a rich way of interpreting and appreciating core Christian insights. [End Page 67] It is no accident that process theologians such as John Cobb suggest that process theology is a way of seeing things—a theological bridge—that can help a Christian cross over into Buddhism, learn from it in deep ways, and return with fresh insights that enrich a walk with Christ; and that can also help Buddhists cross over into Christianity, learn from it in deep ways, and return with fresh insights for practicing the dharma.

What, then, are the core teachings of process theology? If we imagine process theology as a wooden bridge, here would be ten of its planks:

  1. There are many worlds beyond words, which can be known in many ways, including prayer and meditation, empathy and imagination, intuition and mindful perception.
  2. Human life consists of a series of moments of experience, each of which includes, and is dependent on, the whole of the universe.
  3. The universe is an unfolding process that is never the same at two instants.
  4. Humans and other living beings have no substantial or permanent self that separates them from the surrounding world.
  5. Ultimate reality is a nonstatic and nondualistic Emptiness of which all things are manifestations: with Emptiness referring to (a) the emptiness of words and concepts as adequate descriptions of things as they are, (b) the sheer presence of things as they are in their suchness, (c) the absence of a self-contained substantiality or "own being" within things, (d) the sheer interconnectedness of all things, (e) the pure becoming of all things.
  6. There is a womblike presence—God—who shares in the joys and sufferings of each living being, and who is herself an example of no-self, interdependence, pure becoming, of the Emptiness described above.
  7. God is present within each living being an in-dwelling lure toward wisdom and compassion.
  8. God's presence is also found between humans, when they live in community with one another in a...


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