This morning, I participated in a fun and enlightening webinar organized by the Singapore Centre for Global Missions (SCGM), in which I was invited as one of the two guest speakers. It was on the theme of "Understanding Buddhism. Befriending Buddhists." There were several interesting questions asked of me, after having shared my testimony and explained the essentials of Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, and the concept of nirvana to the Christian audience.
One question was on the Buddha image I had in my study room, which was visible on the Zoom video screen. I did not press this point but I assume the question had bearing on the notion of idolatry, a common hot button issue within Christian circles. There is often a lot of misconception around the display of Buddha images in temples, centres, and homes.
I endeavoured to answer the question by explaining the symbolic role of the Buddha image as a representation of liberation, particularly liberation from dukkha (suffering) and liberation into the fullness of wisdom and compassion. It is essentially an epitome of the ideal of human awakening and freedom from bondage. I respect and honour the Buddha as my original teacher in a line of highly qualified teachers in my life, with respect to ethical, meditative, and wisdom training. I do not worship the Buddha.
What I did not have time to say is this: underlying the question is probably the assumption of possible idolatry on my part. How can I as a "Christian" idolize a Buddha image? To that qualm I would like to respond as follows: respecting and honouring one's teacher is not idolatry. If on Teacher's Day, you send flowers and a card to thank your history or science teacher for their training and care, would that constitute idolatry? If not, why would my respect and gratitude to the Buddha constitute idolatry? I have a few photos of my teachers from school but I do not have a single photo of the Buddha (he died 2,500 years ago). I do have a beautifully and elegantly sculpted art piece that represents the Buddha on my bookshelf. I place it on my shelf as an act of remembrance and gratefulness. I also have a cross inscribed with Jeremiah 29:11 sitting beside the Buddha. I do not worship that cross, if you must know. I'm sure you don't either, if you have one in your home.
Now, with regards to idolatry, I suggest that in our time of rampant consumerism and neoliberal capitalism, there are far more dangerous idols holding us captive than this little Buddha statue. They are the idols of hedonistic pleasure, money, power, position and authority (secular or religious), fame, sex, youthful looks, even ideology and religion itself. Many of these idols are active and dominant not only in our private minds but in the collective psyche of the religious institution in question. In the case of a church, idols of such kinds may insidiously subvert our worship of God, causing us to unconsciously or consciously place money, church numbers, religious clergy on the pedestal of our hearts in place of the Person of Christ. Would not such idolatry be more destructive and salient?
As a case in point, the prosperity hypergrace pseudo-gospel that is currently on rampage throughout large swathes of the church is precisely that: a covert insidious form of idolatry dressed up as the genuine gospel that worships a genie rather than Jesus. If, as disciples of Christ, we condemn a brethren for a small Buddha image in his study room but fail to rightly discern the massive idolatry gripping whole churches and leading the masses to a less than savoury destination, are we not guilty of this charge from our Lord who says:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."
Let us unlearn our conditioned reactions and learn to see rightly, with wisdom and discernment.
Let us be curious to find out before jumping to hasty conclusions.
Let us be genuinely interested in another human being's life and spiritual journey, regardless of faith, and seek to understand first before seeking to change them.
Better still, seek not to change anyone but yourself. Be mindfully listening and mindfully open to encounter another fellow traveller with an open mind and open heart, letting the Person of Christ shine through our being rather than egotistically seeking to shove our religious beliefs down someone else's throat.
Let us have no agenda but to love like our Lord loves.
Let His Spirit do whatever He wants to do in the horizon of mutuality we share with our friend.
Let His will be done, not ours. Be like Jesus.
Let us take time to befriend, to be a friend, to care and nurture our friend, and to answer their questions humbly and sincerely from the heart when they ask us.
Let us allow Christ to do His work in and through us, and in our friends, revealing Himself to them in His time, not ours.
Let us be informed and inspired to share the reason for our faith and the depth, beauty, and power of the gospel of Christ when the time comes: that we are more flawed and sinful than we dared believe, yet more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope (Timothy Keller).
Let us be honest about our own struggles of faith, our own doubts and questions, without trying to impress our friends or whitewash over the many flaws and even injustices of the Christian church over history, especially viz-a-viz western colonialism and imperialism.
Let us stop projecting our insecurities and fears and start owning the shadow of our collective history and the dark side of our faith.
Let us learn, unlearn, and relearn (a-la SIT but on a higher plane) to be more and more like Christ, rather than be an unthinking institutionally-conformist "Christian."
When we can learn more to be like Christ than to be a "Christian evangelist or apologist or apostle or prophet" or whatever, we can better let God be God and us be us. We can truly love one another as He loves us. Will we begin?