What religion a man shall have is a historical accident, quite as much as what language he shall speak. ~George Santayana, Reason in Religion
Do we have a faith because we were born into it, because those around us have similar beliefs? Or do we believe what we believe because of a fierce and unforgettable confrontation with a form of truth – or transcendence – that pushes us beyond our knowledge – literally the truth that passes all understanding…
My experience on a Chinese ferry was equally, uh, well…beyond my expectations and understanding.
I had been on the road for about a week, on all kinds of ratty, crowded and fumeous buses, on foot, lost a lot and generally too tired to want anything except home – though my real home was six thousand miles and the Pacific Ocean away.
I had been visiting an island that historically had been home to several Buddhist monasteries. I had to catch a ferry, take a bus and then catch a flight back to Beijing.
I was glad to get on the ferry and just wanted to sit and rest in any quiet corner I could find.
The ferry was old and dirty – and way over-packed with passengers. I took the only relative solace I could find. I sat on some crates outside in the rear of the ferry. Yes, right by the blaring and stinking diesel engine. And yes, the whole ferry shook like a crazed beast in the midst of unrelenting passionate seizures.
There were several dozen young men on the ferry who were in the early stages of becoming Buddhist monks. They had shaved heads and saffron robes. Some had shaved heads tattooed with Buddhist sutras in Chinese characters. Their public commitment to their faith was almost tangible.
As always, I was the only white face anywhere in sight.
One of the young Buddhist monks in training approached me. He, of course, spoke no English.
And, I, of course, spoke no Chinese.
I had made friends with an ethnic Chinese woman who had grown up in Singapore who spoke both Chinese and English. She, like me, was also weary and wanted to be left alone.
But this young monk was persistent. He wanted to know the difference between Buddhism and Christianity. And I, as the only Westerner in sight, was his last (and probably first) source of insight regarding Christianity before he made his lifelong Buddhist vows.
This is, to put it mildly, a fairly complex topic requiring some serious thought, clear definitions of spiritual terms and certainly time for reflection and prayerful analysis.
We had none of that. We had a tired and already annoyed interpreter, a blaring diesel engine not twenty feet away spewing noxious fumes our way, the smell of fish and rotting seaweed and, as if that wasn’t enough, total language stalemate.
I also had a sense of destiny about this conversation. I knew that he would remember, if not meditate on, this conversation for years. As he made this lifelong vow to study and live out Buddhism, he would certainly keep in mind, at least as a reference, his brief brush with a Christian.
So, as much as I wanted to be left alone, I also wanted to answer his question. But what, in a few words, was the answer?
My translator was a lapsed Catholic, and in no mood for a lengthy philosophical/theological discussion.
But even in the most ideal circumstances, how would I answer that question? What could I say that would cross religious jargon and cultural assumptions? What words, at their simplest, would even make sense – let alone be memorable.
Compassion? The New Testament certainly said a lot about compassion, but so did many other religious traditions – especially Buddhism.
Justice? Well, yes, but pretty much every religion valued some definition of justice.
Forgiveness? How could I even begin to define forgiveness?
Should I talk about theological principles? The Ten Commandments? Being a good person?
Finally, in my exhausted, dazed state, I just said “It’s Jesus. Read the New Testament”.
Who knows if he would ever see a New Testament in his language as part of his religious studies, but if Jesus is the One and all truth is God’s truth, no matter what route this young man takes, if he is sincerely seeking God, I am convinced that God will reveal himself to him – and to each of us.
But is faith ever really a matter of explaining? Or understanding?
God knows us; but can any of us really know Him?
As Wendell Berry put it, “We cannot comprehend what comprehends us”.
And even within ourselves, we barely – and rarely – know what it is we even know about ourselves, let alone our eternal destinies.
As Novalis wrote “We never completely comprehend ourselves, but we can do far more than comprehend”.
We can study, and ponder and pray, but our knowledge, our faith, our eternal identity is far more than any words.
We like to imagine that our theology is ‘systematic’ – that we have God all figured out. But then, like that day for me, we discover, like the Apostle Paul, that our ‘knowledge’ our ‘righteousness’, even our carefully refined and articulated theology is rubbish and rags in the sight of God.
Like nearly every other experience I had in China, I left that fragmented conversation with more questions than answers. Would I be a Christian if I were not born in America? Is my “spiritual search” as fraught with cultural baggage as this young man’s? In my spiritual journey, am I strong and mature enough in my faith to welcome the thoughts and insights of those outside of my own religious framework? Am I willing to admit that my understanding of who God is – and what He can do – in my life or the lives of others – may not be thoroughly accurate? Is my faith anywhere near the total glee and undiluted devotion of a child – the faith Jesus asks of his followers?
I have no doubt that Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life” but that does not mean that I am convinced that my knowledge, my comprehension, my embracing of Jesus is anywhere near total or, even within my lifetime, possibly complete.
In some ways, I find myself envious of the resolute conviction of my Buddhist questioner.
I also have a gut feeling, that if the God of Christianity were “fair” – this dedicated Buddhist would be far more worthy of heaven than I could ever be.
But then again, I find my home in the aspect of Christianity that holds that Grace means getting what we don’t deserve.
In my richest, yet sometimes most desolate moments, like the author of most of the Psalms, I don’t find much assurance in my knowledge of God – but I do find immense safety and consolation in the reality that God knows me – vastly more than I could ever know myself.
He created me – and He put me in this particular family, culture, nation and historical era – with deliberation and intent.
I may lose my bearings now and then, but God is my enduring horizon. In my own eyes – and in the eyes of those around me – I may appear lost, but like a watchful parent, God knows how to call me home.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.
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