Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reinventing the Wheel of Existence

Andrew Brown:

On Sunday, in a rather more low-key event, Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt will be debating with Madeleine Bunting the possibility of religion without supernaturalism at Friends House on Euston Road in London.

Cupitt is a Christian, of sorts: at least, he's an ordained Anglican priest. But he believes almost nothing of traditional Christianity. "The whole system of Christian doctrine is a somewhat haphazard human construct with an all-too-human history, and … the Bible, when read closely, does not actually teach – nor even support – orthodox doctrine."

Batchelor, similarly, trained for 10 years as a Buddhist monk in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the exiled Dalai Lama, but believes few of the central doctrines of traditional Buddhism. "The kind of secular Buddhism I am interested in … entails a rethinking of Buddhism from the ground up. And what emerges from this reconfiguration of core values and ideas might not look anything like the Buddhism we are familiar with today."

Both men believe in the finality of death. They suppose that this life is the only one we have or can have, and that it is absurd to suppose that personality, in any form, survives the collapse of the body. The doctrine of karma is here reduced to a simple statement of faith that the world is made of braided causal chains: every effect has a cause, and is itself a cause of other effects. There's nothing there about reincarnation.

Speaking of lugging too much stuff around with you... I can't help but feel that it's just too much trouble to try to renovate from within a well-established framework that has existed for centuries. It's too likely to end up as an argument over linguistic minutiae and appeals to authority. The -ism suffix is like a conceptual climbing vine; it slowly suffocates a way of life, renders a body of thought immobile.