The Temptation of Belief
Last month I went to southern California to visit my cousin K., a born again Christian who promised to show me around the church scene there and take good care of me in the seventh month of my first pregnancy. Pretty much everyone I talked to about this trip found it odd that I would leave behind my cozy world of husband, house, mountains, and fellow Zen practitioners in the monastery down the street, to fly 3,000 miles across the country to interview Christians.
Why, they asked me, would a Buddhist spend all this time researching and writing about Christianity? And why that type of Christianity, specifically? It’s a good question, one that I am trying to answer as I do the work, which I have become nearly obsessed with. I keep putting off things like turning our guest room into a nursery to read C.S. Lewis or transcribe an interview with a fundamentalist. People are beginning to wonder. I wonder. But there’s one thing I know: Jealousy is a powerful force, and I am terribly jealous of the born again.
I have been practicing Buddhism for nearly ten years now. In the first couple years, I truly felt as if I had been delivered from madness. I discovered the dharma through a total fluke, realized I had found the answer to my torment, and threw myself in with abandon. Instantly, I was rewarded for my efforts — my mind settled down and the prison I had been in started to disintegrate. Someone once told me that, when she first met me, I seemed like someone who had been saved, yes, even born again. And it’s true. But even then, in the beginning, when the payoff was greatest and most obvious, the goods didn’t come easy. I was devoted — fanatically — to practicing, as Master Dogen says, as though extinguishing a fire upon my head. It was natural, in that sense, but not effortless. In fact, it was pretty frantic.
One of my cousin’s favorite terms is “season,” i.e. “in this season of my life God’s plan for me is x.” For me, those first years of my Zen practice were a blessed season. Since then, things have gotten harder but I have not given up. Until getting pregnant, I still did a silent retreat nearly every month, desperately searching for comfort, and finding it only in shards, and even then only in the realization that I must give up all hope, which I, apparently, have refused to do. I have lived in a training monastery for two of those years — a season unto itself — waking well before dawn, living in a small community, working hard, maybe too hard.
In other words, my religious life and practice have not been incidental. I may have stumbled onto riches in the beginning, but that season has been over for some time. It’s not that I don’t find joy in my practice; I do. But the joy comes from being consistently thwarted, rejected, denied, and learning how to surrender to that. It is a slow joy, a long season of patient but rewarding diligence.
Which is why I find it shocking, confusing, and fascinating that for approximately 88 million people in this country alone, or 40% of the U.S. population — those who are considered born-again Christians — forgiveness, joy, and eternal life are handed over in the blink of an eye. From sinner to redeemed sinner, just like that. “Yes,” I am told, salvation is “a free gift,” they say, “available to all.” A “free gift” that is of course actually more of a bargain at the low price of taking Jesus Christ into your heart.
But even with such a price to pay, it just doesn’t seem fair. I have been ready to strike a deal with my teacher for years now, but he, and even the Buddha himself, promises me nothing beyond my own capacity, which can feel pretty depressing. So while I have all kinds of intellectual curiosity and more rational reasons investigating the Christian scene, my dismay at the fact that relief seems to be happening for other people and not for me is at least one driving force behind it. So this trip, which would focus on the more extreme “quick fix” end of the born-again spectrum, was an attempt to find out what that kind of relief is made of.
K. is a very cheerful woman, 39 years old, beautiful with her long blond hair, bright gray eyes, and white teeth. Impossible not to like. She has never been married, but would like to be and would like kids, although she is becoming nervous that that may not happen for her due to, of course, God’s plan for her life. To me, she looks and feels like someone who is already married to God, or at least an angel. During my stay, as she expressed confusion about God’s plan concerning her career, I kept suggesting she go to seminary. “You think?” she would say, face wide open, “Gosh, I feel like I am open to that, but God just hasn’t made it clear.”
I was impressed by K.’s willingness to field all my obnoxious questions, to allow her life to be picked over. But I could tell when she was getting uncomfortable as I asked her things like “so why do you believe that what the Bible says is true?” by her refrain of, “gosh, that is such a good question.”
She knew I was trying to understand her faith from my own perspective, to present her world to outside observers, to “unbelievers.” While she was fully aware of my commitment to Buddhism, how could she not have had some hope that my curiosity would lead to my salvation? As she said later in our formal interview with uncharacteristic gravity, “The Bible talks about hell as a place that’s really pretty horrible, and so that drives me to prayer.” K. is not the only person I met on this trip who is may still be praying for me, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Part of me can receive the love that I know is intended, while another part of me is angry at the arrogance of it. If anything, that tight little part of me thinks, I should be praying for you!
That first night in Corona del Mar, I was exhausted, but K. was determined in her sweet Michigan way (“Are you sure you’re okay? I know you’re on a different time zone still, and you’re pregnant and all, and we totally don’t have to go, but I think you’d really like to meet them”) to take me to her friends’ house so I could meet them, and her boyfriend was going to be there as well, which was a bonus. On the way there we stopped at In and Out Burger, which was the first thing that blew my mind. As much as I was trying to do the when-in-Rome thing, I was surprised to find myself eating a cheeseburger in a car in a parking lot. As we ate, K. told me about her friends Deb and Jack and how they are such neat people, and how their three year old son Stevie had recently died in his sleep.
Deb and Jack were in fact really nice people (and those burgers were in fact so good I have longed for another since) and as we sat in their living room, Jack and K.’s boyfriend playing guitars, Deb shared with me the story of their son. Apparently, he had been born with heart trouble after a dramatic pregnancy. At one point not long ago, when Stevie was 3, he told Deb that he was going to “fly to Jesus.”
She said, “No you’re not. You’re only three!”
But he was sure. “Yes I am,” he told his mother.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Deb told me, fighting the tears that must come often, “there are no accidents.”
It was interesting to sit and listen to someone like that — I was in her home, this was not an interview, but a social situation, and she was sharing a wound that I, being pregnant and all, found particularly brutal. But as soon as the Jesus stuff came on the scene (and it didn’t take long), I felt myself hardening. Deb told me about the work she does with homeless people and how she met this one woman who was “high on crack” and neglecting her three kids. She told me that the only reason this woman was worried about someone taking her kids is for the welfare check the kids allow her, and how angry this makes her. She would happily take one or all of those kids and love them, she said, and I am sure that’s true. But instead of seeing where Deb was coming from, I distanced myself even more. For me, at that moment, she was not a woman who lost a child; she was a self-righteous born-again Christian who didn’t have the time of day for a crackhead and I was seeing through her charade of compassion. It was like what Buddhists get all the time: If you’re so spiritual, why are you such an asshole?
On my last Sunday in California, I visited Rock Harbor, a church with a congregation which is 70% single and mostly under 25. The pastor was not only chill, he was a comedian as well, throwing out lines like, “raise your hand if you’re wearing a tie today.” When nobody moved, he said, “I’m very proud of you,” which brought a good, hearty laugh from the audience.
There were probably 1,000 people there, the girls all gussied up with their Coach bags, tight low-riders, clingy t-shirts, pointy heels, and lacquered hair. The guys were appropriately clean yet rumpled. It felt more like a mall than a place of worship, but I guess that is so east-coast-mainline-denomination of me.
The theme of the sermon that day was sexuality, learning how to be single — not as a default position, but as an offering to God. When the sermon reached its “PG-13 conversation” point, referring to questions like, “is masturbation okay?”, there was a moment when the congregation was warned that children could leave the room.
I couldn’t quite figure how these folks think they are going to stay celibate, save themselves for marriage, in an environment like that. I thought about the monastery where I lived and how we had to dress “modestly.” No shorts or tank tops. No jewelry. It is always a dicey situation since clearly it is the women who are held responsible for the vibe, but in a context like that, where men and women, and young single ones at that, are working together on their spiritual lives, it only makes sense to try to keep distractions to a minimum. And in our community we aren’t even, necessarily, trying to remain celibate, just decent and focused. At Rock Harbor, it looked like they had their work cut out for them.
I don’t know if this Sunday service ended with an altar call, though it probably did since that’s the general format, because after the short sermon, K. could tell I was getting hungry, so we left and ate at a nearby café. I was totally wiped out by all my looking, drained by trying to understand. As I had sat in the church, trying to notice everything — the simple wooden cross, the industrial loft details, the complex lighting system — I also scanned the crowd, really trying to study the Christians I had come to see.
Some looked familiar, like people I have known all my life, people trying to fit in, look good, feel better. And more than that, too. They were people wanting to know how to live, who they are, who God is. People just like me.
And yet there was something totally mysterious there, too — a faith in a doctrine that I do not understand: a firm belief in God as the benevolent father, a belief in Jesus Christ as his only son, a belief in heaven as a place that exists beyond death and beyond this earth, a belief in the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and a belief in salvation realized only through these beliefs. But do they really believe it? My teacher tells us all the time, “Don’t believe me, experience this great dharma for yourself.” He is also fond of saying that if he discovered the whole Buddhist story was a myth, that Shakyamuni Buddha never existed, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference to him. I guess, for me, it would make a difference. As much as I know that only I can make my life real, only I can realize myself, only I can feed the poor, I can’t help but feel the temptation of belief.
That night as I lay in bed, hands on my hard, round belly, my mind filled with the faces of all the believers I had met and seen, I tried, really tried, to pray. I tried to feel what it would be like to believe in someone watching over me, some big Father — my one, true, original dad — the who never got distracted, never looked at porn, never died a pathetic death. Someone who loved me no matter what I did, was always ready with forgiveness, and a forgiveness that actually mattered, one that would relieve me from all this the guilt and shame. I tried to talk to Him and ask that He make Himself known, and if He couldn’t or wouldn’t do that, would He please watch over me and make my baby healthy.
But I knew I was praying all wrong. I knew that what I should pray for is that thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and pray for the strength to live through whatever comes my way. I should pray that I could forgive all who have hurt me. I should pray that I take good care of my baby girl, regardless of her health or disposition. I should pray to see God in all beings, for the wisdom not to disregard a single speck of dust. I should pray to see through my desire to feel superior, to point out other’s errors and faults, to separate myself from anything or anyone. I should pray for the dissolution of my big fat ego. I should pray to stop looking outside of myself.
But the other prayer was so much more of a relief.