May 18, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, May 18, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
York Minster's syncretistic embrace of Zen Buddhism out of sync with Christian orthodoxy
A spate of headlines coming from the United Kingdom about one of the most historic churches in the Church of England tells us something about the radically increased confusion that is now evident in postmodern religion in particular, in at least some of what is called Christianity. York Minster is one of the most historic churches and one of the most historic sites in terms of the Church of England. It is also a massive Gothic cathedral built in the 13th century. Nevertheless, the roots of Christian worship at that site go back at least to the year 627 early in the seventh century. One of the other issues we should keep in mind is that the very shape and architecture of this, the largest Gothic Cathedral in northern Europe, points to a theology of Christian transcendence, it points to the understanding that Christians worship a transcendent God. The perpendicular forms of Gothic architecture point to that transcendence and to the grace and wonder of Christian worship. The cruciform shape of the Cathedral—after all, from the air it would be seen to be shaped as a cross—points to the centrality of Christ and the atonement in terms of Christian worship.
But why the headline now? Well, here’s the headline from The Telegraph in an article written by John Bingham, the Religious Affairs editor for the paper,Show Full Transcript
“York Minster brings in Zen Buddhism, quietly.”
Bingham writes and I quote,
“In a history stretching back 1,400 years, York Minster has witnessed wars, plague, revolution, siege and fires – but perhaps nothing quite like this.”
He goes on to say,
“Arguably England’s most venerable church, it is renowned around the world for its daily cycle of prayer and choral worship.
“But, in what will be seen as a striking departure from its Christian traditions, senior clergy at the Minster have quietly introduced a new form of spiritual enrichment altogether: Zen Buddhist meditation.
“A new ‘sangha’ – meaning community or order – has been set up under the auspices of the Minster chapter and meets within the medieval precincts every other Friday for an hour and a half’s silent meditation.”
The report in The Telegraph tells us that this was the idea of a man identified as the Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Collingwood. He is the Minster’s Canon Chancellor, a long-standing enthusiast for Zen Buddhist practice, we are told, which emphasizes silent meditation and a focus on breathing techniques. Actually, as we shall see, it focuses on a great deal more.
In the most telling portion of the article in The Telegraph, Dr. Collingwood describes himself to the paper as,
“Religiously bilingual,” whereby he explains that he combines Christian beliefs and Zen Buddhism and having “a foot in more than one religious camp.”
We are then told that,
“The ancient Christian tradition of contemplation offers a natural fit with eastern meditation techniques,” that according to Dr. Collingwood.
We need to note here that what we are witnessing is what is described as syncretism; that is, it is the combining of Christianity with some other religion. There is no Christian concept of being “religiously bilingual.”
After all, it is Christ himself who said,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.”
In both the New Testament and the Old there are explicit condemnations of all forms of syncretism, they are defined furthermore as forms of unvarnished idolatry. For example, when you consider the Old Testament when God called the children of Israel into the land of promise, he forbade them explicitly from even trying to recover ancient pagan sites of worship in order to place his own worship in that site. God instead ordered the children of Israel to have nothing to do with not only the paganisms that had inhabited Canaan, but to have anything to do with even the places that had been abandoned by the Canaanites in terms of their worship. There is an outright condemnation un-categorically in terms of syncretism. But now, in what might rightly be described as the most historic Christian place of worship in the United Kingdom, in York Minster there is time and space allotted for a syncretism that includes Buddhism, and you have the Minster’s Canon Chancellor declaring that he is, let me quote again,
“Religiously bilingual” and having “a foot in more than one religious camp.”
In any previous Christian generation, this would be recognized for what it is. It is an outright repudiation of classical, biblical orthodox Christianity. It is the embrace of some other religion in the guise of mixing Christianity and Buddhism. There would be the outright recognition that it is impossible to have a foot in more than one religious camp when you’re talking about Christianity and Buddhism and that it would be heretical to claim to be religiously bilingual. But this is now a recognized feature of worship in York Minster in the United Kingdom.
In a very revealing statement, the Chancellor speaking to The Telegraph said,
“I’m sure there are those who think I’m an out and out heretic but it seems to me perhaps Zen poses fewer problems [than other non-Christian customs] because it doesn’t claim to be a system of doctrine or belief.”
That is very telling in every conceivable way. In the first place, here you have the Canon Chancellor of the Minster acknowledging that he might well be considered “an out and out heretic.”
But then he goes on to say that if he’s going to syncretize Christianity with something else, perhaps Zen Buddhism is less problematic than some other religious system, because after all,
“It doesn’t claim to be a system of doctrine or belief.”
Now here’s where we have to think very carefully about Zen Buddhism. It is true that Zen Buddhism does not claim to be a doctrinal religion and, in one sense, it’s not. But in the classic sense, it is. Doctrine, after all, simply means teaching, and Zen Buddhism includes, for certain, teaching. Furthermore, when he goes on to describe it also as belief, well, at that point Zen Buddhism simply has to be defined as being based upon a belief system that makes Zen Buddhism and its meditation techniques possible. There is no such thing as a worldview that doesn’t include doctrine or belief. The question is, are those doctrines or beliefs compatible with biblical Christianity? And when it comes to Zen Buddhism, the clear answer is no. This is an answer that would’ve been readily given by the disciples, by the apostles; it was an answer given by the Lord himself in John 14:6. It is exactly what the Apostle Paul was warning about when he wrote to the Galatians, concerned that they had so quickly abandoned the gospel of Christ and embraced some other gospel. Veteran British religion writer, Ruth Gledhill, writing for Christian Today writes,
“A leading adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that Buddhist meditation introduced by a key cathedral in the north of England breaches the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.”
And breach those bounds, of course it does. She goes on to cite Dr. Ian Paul, described as a highly regarded conservative evangelical member of the Archbishops Council, and also a regular commentator for Christian Today. He wrote that,
“The setting up of a ‘sangha’ or community for Buddhist meditation at York Minster illustrates the ‘nonsense’ of the so-called ‘broad church.’”
This too demands our attention. What is the reference here to a broad church? That language goes back in the Church of England at least to the 19th century, when during that century of tumult, theological and otherwise, three very clear parties emerged in the Church of England. They included the low church party, that was conservative evangelicals; the high church party, that was made up of those described as Anglo-Catholics who wanted to be more Catholic than Protestant in terms of their tradition within the Church of England; and then there were theological liberals as well—the broad churchmen, as they called themselves, called for a church that would be large enough, broad enough, to include all three of these different parties within the Church of England. We need to note that taking all three of these parties to their logical theological conclusion ends up with not only three different parties or even three different visions of Anglican Christianity, but eventually three different religions.
If you follow the trajectory of liberal theology, you will end up with one religion. If you follow the trajectory of evangelical theology, you will end up in biblical Christianity. If you follow the trajectory of the high church party, there may be a clear affirmation of orthodoxy, but there would also be a syncretism with Roman Catholicism. The point to make here is that the claim was made by the broad churchmen that a church should be broad enough to include all three of these parties. But then we need to note that now you have the logic of the broad church being extended not just to three different parties within the Church of England, but stretched to the breaking point to include also Zen Buddhism.
We also need to recognize that during the 20th century in particular, the Church of England began to claim what was called comprehensiveness. That is the claim to the church should be not only broad, but that it eventually should be broad enough to comprehend, to include within itself, virtually any Christian theological tradition. That has opened the Church of England to any number of theological aberrations and thus, we really shouldn’t be surprised that now in York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and the most venerable place of Christian worship within the United Kingdom, there is now by the action of one of the leaders of the Cathedral an open space and a designated time for Zen Buddhism by the very man who claims that he is “religiously bilingual.”
In this article, the Chancellor, that again is Christopher Collingwood, said that not only was he “religiously bilingual” but that he also described himself as having a “dual religious belonging.” That’s another way of saying more or less the same thing. The biggest issue for evangelical Christians thinking from a biblical worldview here is the understanding that there is only a certain degree of broadness that can actually mark any congregation or any denomination. There is no church that can remain a church that claims to be endlessly broad. That was true in terms of the 19th century in the Church of England; it is excruciatingly more clear now. It’s also true that if you’re going to claim a principle of doctrinal comprehensiveness, eventually you’re going to comprehend or include or allow virtually anything—any doctrinal aberration, or any heresy. Now you have the Canon Chancellor of York Minster claiming to be religiously bilingual and saying that he now has a foot in two different religious camps, that he is going to have a sense of dual religious belonging and that he’s going to combine Christianity and Zen Buddhism.
A final point to be made on this story is the fact that Zen Buddhism and Christianity point in two fundamentally different directions. Christianity points to Christ and to historic events that took place in his atonement and tells the story and explains why, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Zen Buddhism heads in a very different direction into interiority, rejecting any actual belief in theism, that is, even in a personal omnipotent sovereign God. This is one of the biblical affirmation central to the Reformation and to what we declare when we say Christ alone. It comes down to this: if we say “Christ and anything or anyone,” it leads to disaster; it leads to the repudiation of biblical Christianity.
Theology and fertility: As West secularizes, unbelief projected to decline globally due to low birth rates
Next, looking at the fate of Christianity around the world, we look to a recent major research report released by the Pew Research Center. The title of the report,
“The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050.”
If it doesn’t sound like a blockbuster, it should. Included in the report are items such as this,
“The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world [by 2050].
“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”
We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
“The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010 [when we get to 2050], while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.
“In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.
“India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world [at that point by 2050], surpassing Indonesia.”
Here’s another very important issue,
“In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion [in the United States]. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.”
Furthermore, we are told that,
“Four out of every 10 Christians in the world [that is four out of every 10] will live in sub-Saharan Africa.”
On every page with every emerging fact, this is a truly interesting report. And furthermore, it’s consistent with not only the research that has come from the Pew Research Center previously, but from other major research centers as well. The major trajectories here are abundantly clear. Christianity is going to be in decline in the United States, but at the same time, nonbelief around the world is also going to be in decline. Now what does that tell us? Well, it tells us that unbelief is not on the rise worldwide, it is only on the rise in modern secular states. The two examples given in this report are the United States and France. Even in those nations the number of believers, at least those who register themselves and identify themselves as believers, will continue to be a majority well throughout the 21st century. But, of course, what we’ve been looking at on The Briefing is the fact that secularization here is mostly identified by the fact that there is a loss or even a rejection of the binding authority of Christianity in the culture. The vast majority of Americans still consider themselves to be Christians of one sort or another. The vast increase in the percentage of Muslims in the population in both European nations and the United States is really important. The important factoid in the United States is that Muslims will then outnumber those who identify with Judaism as a religion by the year 2050.
But the really interesting thing here has to do with population, and it points to the issue of reproduction. It’s a major issue in the report; it’s embedded there in the headline where, as I read, it’s not only about the future of world religions, but also about projections about population growth. So here’s a big and stunning announcement. It turns out that unbelief, those who do not affiliate with any religion—that would include both atheists and agnostics on the one hand and those who are more generalized ‘nones’ or nonbelievers on the other—it turns out that they will make up a declining share of the world’s total population, not because there will not be any so-called converts to their cause, but mostly because they are not having babies and they’re not having babies in a very big way.
There is a huge link between theology and fertility. And a worldview that includes theism is one that leads to human reproduction, far more repeatedly than one that begins in the worldview of secularism. This is evident in the United States, where the so-called red states out reproduce the so-called blue states—that identified not only by politics, but relative degree of secularization. We also see this in Europe, where the secularization of the cultures has led to a rapidly declining birthrate. We see it most especially in nations such as Japan and some other Asian nations, where the birthrate has been plummeting, including not only Japan, but South Korea, for reasons that are also at least partially explained by theology.
A similar report that came out in the Huffington Post just a few days ago tells us that for the first time in Norwegian history, there are more atheists and agnostics than there are believers in God. Also, for the first time in British history, there are now more atheists and agnostics than believers, and church attendance rates in the United Kingdom are at an all-time low. According to this report, less than 2 percent of British men and women are attending church in any Christian church on any given Sunday. This report also tells us that approximately 70 percent of the Dutch are not affiliated with any religion, and that approximately 700 Protestant churches and over 1000 Catholic churches in the Netherlands are expected to close just within the next few years simply because of the radical drop off in attendance.
But the big story’s actually found in a recent edition of National Geographic. The title of this article,
“The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion”
Here we have the mixed message that is embedded within this research. If you’re looking at this as a modern secular researcher, you’re going to see an increase in secularism. But if you look worldwide, it is going to be a declining share of the worldwide population. It all depends on where you are. If you’re in sub-Saharan Africa, there is not going to be a very large percentage of unbelievers at all. As a matter fact, that is a radical understatement. Meanwhile, if you’re in a place like the United Kingdom or much of northern Europe, or if you’re in Canada or in some major areas of the United States, it’s not going to be difficult to believe that secularism is on the rise. Writing for a supposedly expected secular audience, Gabe Bullard, writing for National Geographic, tries to explain that this will have consequences. He writes,
“A lack of religious affiliation has profound effects on how people think about death, how they teach their kids, and even how they vote.”
That appears to be a stunning recognition on the part of this writer for National Geographic, that believing or not believing in God is actually going to have consequences in terms of how we raise our children, in terms of how we think about death, and in terms of how people as believers or unbelievers vote. This simply points to the fundamental importance and foundational function of worldview. And what we’re looking at here is an understanding, even from a secular authority, that a major change in what people believe is going to lead to consequences far beyond organized religion. In this National Geographic article, there are at least two stunning paragraphs. Here’s the first, and I quote,
“There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture.”
Now let’s just look at that paragraph for a moment. Here we’re being told that secularization is happening startlingly fast—there are illustrations given, nations like France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, also the United Kingdom and Australia. We’re also told that even in nations where there had been an historic level of Christian belief that had dominated the culture such as Christianity in Europe, to use the words in the report,
“Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been.”
Now keep that in mind when I read you the next paragraph,
“But nones [that is N-O-N-E-S, those with no religious affiliation] aren’t inheriting the Earth just yet. In many parts of the world—sub-Saharan Africa in particular—religion is growing so fast that nones’ share of the global population will actually shrink in 25 years as the world turns into what one researcher has described as ‘the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest.’”
That again is one of those sentences we need to look at more closely. Here’s a researcher cited as describing “the secularizing west and the rapidly growing rest.”
That is the dual dynamic taking place in the country. It is true that Western nations are becoming more secularized, but it’s also true that those Western nations are going to represent a decreasing portion of the global population. And the rest of the global population is not moving in a more secularizing direction. There are a couple of very interesting facts about unbelief in the United States. For example, it turns out that the secularizing West “is full of white men.”
It turns out in the United States, according to National Geographic,
“About 68 percent of atheists are men, and 78 percent are white.”
Biblically-minded Christians looking at research reports such as this need to understand that they are indeed telling us something. They’re telling us a great deal not only about our own nation and its likely spiritual future, but also about our global challenge in terms of world evangelization and the Great Commission. The good news is that most of the world is not becoming secularized. That is, in effect, good news. The bad news is that Christianity is going to be falling behind in terms of the missionary mandate when we look at the fact that Islam will be growing faster than Christianity. But in that case, it turns out, it’s not going to be so much about converts to Islam as it’s going to be about reproduction rates, with Muslims simply out-reproducing Christians over the next several decades. And of course the bottom line in all of this is that we’re looking at a mass spiritual and theological confusion. This is simply a fact we have to acknowledge, and a challenge that biblically-minded Christians are going to face. But of course, now we return to where we began in York Minster in Great Britain, where as it turns out that confusion is coming from the top, not just from the bottom. In this of course is a warning to us all. If we can’t maintain the theological integrity of our own churches, how can we expect to do anything about clarifying the spiritual confusion in the larger world around us? If we tolerate heresy in the church, how is anyone around the world going to hear the gospel?