Paul Prather

What a Kentucky pastor is learning about his own beliefs from a Buddhist nun

Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron Pemachodronfoundation.org

I’m drawing insight from Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun whose teachings I’ve been listening to on compact discs in my car as I run errands.

My wife, Liz, and our friend Stacy introduced me to Chodron. Liz is a deacon in our church, and Stacy is the music director.

No doubt, whole generations of my Kentucky ancestors are now kicking the slats out of their coffins at the thought of three church leaders contaminating our Christian souls with an Eastern system of meditation.

Yet I find much of what Chodron says compatible with my own Christian beliefs about embracing humility, forgoing judgment and maintaining peace of mind.

And because she arrives at similar conclusions while starting from a different point on the continuum, her observations tend to jar my soul into new ways of seeing.

I bring this up because it points to a common dilemma faced by pilgrims from various faith traditions.

Every honest pilgrim — Catholic, Methodist, Jew, Muslim, maybe even atheist or agnostic — must, or at least should, deal with this tension: Just how broad-minded should we be? How widely from home ought we venture in our journey toward spiritual and emotional growth?

I, for instance, am a Pentecostal Christian. I intend to stay one. This tradition is where I belong. It’s who I am (although Chodron would say every person’s identity changes daily, which is true in its way, too).

However, if I think what Pentecostals have always thought, if I read only Pentecostal books and listen only to Pentecostal podcasts, if I lock myself in the basement of my subculture determined to avoid ideas that might conflict with my preconceptions, then I risk becoming hidebound and narrow.

If I do that, I’m cutting myself off from a world of experiences and insights that could enlarge me and, in turn, help me enlarge others.

I’m all about interacting with other denominations and entirely separate religions. I’ve talked theology with Catholic scholars and Episcopal deans and Orthodox priests. I’ve visited Jewish temples and Islamic mosques — not to win others to my beliefs, but to learn from theirs.

Still, you can take anything too far.

If we willy-nilly latch onto every religious or philosophical fad that skitters across our laptops or blasts its 1-800 donation number on our TVs, we risk becoming, spiritually speaking, a mile wide and an inch deep. We could even develop into gadflies — “cafeteria Christians,” as one saying has it.

And on this side of the dilemma lies another, perhaps graver, danger.

If we turn into cafeteria Christians (or cafeteria Jews or Zoroastrians), we risk becoming people who embrace or discard millennia-old truths according to whether or not we personally happen to like them.

Probably we’ll accept the principles that cause us the least discomfort or self-examination.

The danger is, ultimate truth isn’t dependent on whether or not we find it pleasant.

Just to cite one of myriad possibilities, if your habit is to be sexually promiscuous, and if you enjoy that, you’ll probably discard the precepts of any faith tradition that warns of the toll your endless sleeping around can take on your flesh, soul, marriage and kids.

You’ll decide pursuing infinite partners is fine, that God and you have a mutual understanding in which those old rules didn’t apply to you. You’ll tell yourself the ancient sages were repressed, pinch-faced prudes who couldn’t foresee as wise and glorious a being as you are.

You’ll find yourself a scripture from some weird cultic offshoot that frees you to sleep with anything you chose, up to and including a wild Asian yak.

And that solution will make it difficult for you to develop self-discipline or self-awareness or fidelity or responsibility to a larger community — traits central to most serious faiths.

Again, promiscuity is merely an example. Maybe your (or my) weakness is ego. Or sloth. Or red-hot anger. Or judgmentalism. Or stealing. It’s all the same.

Adhering to a time-honored, specific faith tradition, as opposed to casually picking and choosing from the spiritual smorgasbord, forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves we’d just as lief avoid. That’s a good thing.

As in many of life’s endeavors, I suppose, the healthiest path is to strike a balance.

We need a solid faith system that’s central to our lives and whose tenets we gallantly try to understand and obey. Yet we also should remain open-minded enough to seek out, hear from and learn from other sources.

Maybe it’s not wise to spend too much time studying foreign faiths until we’ve mastered the basics of our core tradition, until we know by heart its blessings and blind spots. Until we understand squarely what we believe and how we fit into the system that serves as our spiritual home.

At that point we can learn a lot from other groups. They’re not likely to convert us, but they might very much enlighten us.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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