Americans are accustomed to a certain kind of public confession, argues Susan Wise Bauer — and that means a confession that is shaped by the Christian faith. Indeed, in her seminal book, The Art of the Public Grovel, Bauer argues that Americans are actually accustomed to a public confession that she describes as Augustinian.
She refers, of course, to Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo in Africa and greatest among the theologians of the early church. In his Confessions, Augustine (who had been involved in considerable sin and debauchery prior to his adult conversion to Christianity) set the stage and example for the public confession of wrongdoing. Remarkably, Augustine wrote not only of what wrongs he had done, but also of why he believed he had committed such sinful acts. Theology is mixed with psychology.
The public confession made by Tiger Woods and watched by millions of viewers last Friday was, in the main, much like the confessions made by others, ranging from former President Bill Clinton to evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Woods was clear in making his public admission of wrongdoing, and he spoke directly and candidly of his personal responsibility.
“The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior,” he said. “I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.”
Those are not evasive statements. Woods was forthright and he used the right words. He did not speak of adultery, but he left no doubt about his numerous adulterous affairs.
I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.
I was wrong. I was foolish. I don’t get to play by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me. I brought this shame on myself. I hurt my wife, my kids, my mother, my wife’s family, my friends, my foundation, and kids all around the world who admired me.
This section of his statement takes a form familiar to anyone who knows recovery programs and the therapeutic language of the recovery movement. He takes responsibility and restates the rules he admits he has broken, along with the resultant pain and harm. Once again, the language is both clear and recognizable. He spoke of his time in “therapy” and of his return “for more treatment and more therapy.” Therapy, we are to understand, promises healing and recovery.
Then, Tiger Woods added these words:
I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.
With these words, Woods publicly reclaimed his Buddhist identity, having been raised in the philosophy of Thai Buddhism by his mother. The two key sentences are these: “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint.”
As Professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University affirmed, this is an accurate distillation of Buddhist beliefs. In his words: “In an elegant distillation of the Buddha’s dharma (teaching), Woods said, “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security.” Here he is obviously describing his craving for sexual encounters with beautiful women. But he is also describing our collective obsession with the next new thing.”
Indeed, Buddhism teaches the aim of emptying the self of all desire. As Prothero observes, “Buddhists observe that suffering arises from a 12-fold chain of interlocking causes and effects. Among these causes is craving. We crave this woman or that car because we think that getting her or it will make us happy. But this craving only ties us into an unending cycle of misery, because even if we get what we want there is always something more to crave — another woman or another man, a faster car or a bigger house.”
Professor Prothero points to the statement by Tiger Woods as distinctive from previous apologies specifically because Woods cited a Buddhist rationale, rather than a Christian logic. Prothero sees this as evidence of America’s religious diversity and of the need for religious literacy in order to understand each other.
From an Evangelical perspective, the statement by Tiger Woods points to the radical distinction between Christianity and Buddhism — between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the dharma of the Buddha.
Christianity speaks honestly of desire and affirms that wrongful desires can and do lead to sin, destruction, and death. Nevertheless, Christianity does not teach that all desire is wrong. Indeed, the Bible affirms that God made us to desire Him. Even in our sinful state, something within us cries out for our need — and desire — for divine forgiveness and redemption.
Christianity does not teach that we should (or could) empty ourselves of all desire, but rather that we should desire the salvation that Christ alone has accomplished for us — the salvation that leads to divine forgiveness and the restoration of relationship we should surely desire. Once we know that salvation, our desire for God is only increased and pointed to eternity.
Tiger Woods made a remarkable statement of confession. Even as it was couched in the language of the recovery movement and coached by public relation professionals, it should be taken at face value. But the most remarkable aspect of his confession is its Buddhist shape. American Christians should look at those words with care.
A Christian looking at those words sees just how distant they are from the Gospel. The distinction between the Christian and Buddhist worldviews is laid bare for all to see. Tiger Woods should be taken at his word when he grounds his apology and confession in Buddhism. Evangelical Christians should see this as further reason to pray for Tiger Woods. We should respect the integrity and honesty of his statement, but hope and pray that he will one day come to know the salvation and forgiveness of sin that comes only through faith in Christ. We believe that he will not find salvation in renouncing all desire. We would hope instead that he might hear the Gospel and desire Christ.
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“Transcript: Tiger Woods’ Statement,” USA Today, posted Friday, February 19, 2010. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/golf/pga/2010-02-19-tiger-woods-transcript_N.htm
Stephen Prothero, “A Buddhist Moment in America,” USA Today, Monday, February 22, 2010. http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2010/02/column-a-buddhist-moment-in-america.html#more
Susan Wise Bauer, The Art of the Public Grovel, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).