Buddhist Dreams and Spiritualist Schemes | An Ignatius Insight Interview with Dr. John B. Buescher | Carl E. Olson | April 1, 2008
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, concentrating on the history of religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity, and studying Asian languages. He was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and later a Program Officer in the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. From 1991 until 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service, directing the programming of four hours of daily shortwave radio news and feature broadcasts to Tibet and South Asia.
In addition to Echoes from an Empty Sky: the Origins of the Buddhist Doctrine of the Two Truths (Snow Lion Publications, 2005), Buescher has written a number of important books and articles on the nineteenth-century American Transcendentalists and Spiritualists, notably The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004) and The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). His most recent work is a monograph, Aquarian Evangelist: The Age of Aquarius as It Dawned in the Mind of Levi Dowling (Theosophical History, 2008). He is a parishioner of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Virginia.
Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Buescher about his journey from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to the Catholic Church, and what cautionary lessons can be learned from studying nineteenth-century spiritualists.
Ignatius Insight: In a recent Books and Culture article titled "Everything Is On Fire" (January/February 2008) you wrote of your years spent studying Buddhism after having been raised Catholic. What attracted you to Buddhism? Did you practice Buddhism? What brought you back to the Catholic Church?
John Buescher: I went to a Catholic grade school and graduated from a Catholic high school in 1968. When I went to a state university, I majored in religious studies, and then went on to do my graduate work in it. The Catholic Church, like the rest of society, was in upheaval during those years, very much like my youthful hormones.
Most of my professors conducted their classes as if we were merely classifying various species of believers and their beliefs—the Young Positivists Club, sorting fossils, living and dead—rather than searching for the Truth. The few professors I had who did not do this happened to be Buddhist scholars. Buddhism, it seemed to me, was unflinchingly serious in facing emptiness and impermanence, recognizing the deep extent of suffering, but still somehow finding meaning in life. By contrast—or, so it seemed to me at the time—the Catholic Church appeared to be remaking itself into a sort of Society for Arbitrarily Earnest Happy Talk. Catholics may say that I did not look hard enough, and I will not disagree. But for many reasons the Christian Faith seemed less and less plausible to me. During that chaotic time, I had been brought to the worry bench and the only one I could see sitting next to me was the Buddha. Everyone else seemed to have decided that either we had all already been saved and were in Heaven—if only we could see it—or that we were just now still lingering in Hell, but would be in Heaven as soon as we could make a few changes in society—and some of them perhaps would have to be quite uncomfortable. Although I was by then a lapsed Catholic, I still retained enough of my Catholic upbringing to be deeply skeptical of that. So I wound up studying Buddhism—at first mostly Zen and then later Tibetan Buddhism—and I became a practitioner, too.
My practice was sporadic and somewhat desultory. Part of that I attribute to my own laziness, but there was another obstacle. I had backed into Buddhism, as being the best choice that I could see among many possible choices. But that was not really enough of a commitment to stoke the fire of Faith. I could force myself to do meditation, study and memorize Buddhist scriptures, debate doctrine in Tibetan, do prostrations, and recite prayers, but in the end I undertook all of this as a very elaborate game, sometimes fascinating and helpful, oftentimes terribly difficult, but still finally a game. But the stakes in this game are as high as anyone can imagine—life and death, truth, beauty, the ultimate meaning of things. I reached down inside me and could not find what I needed to continue with it. Buddhists may here point to my laziness, and I will not disagree, but anyway, I became twice lapsed, both as Catholic and as a Buddhist.
As for why I came back to the Catholic Church several years ago, that is harder to fully explain. I had a number of seemingly small experiences that may have had much to do with why I returned. There was seeing the look on my father's face when I found his rosary in his bedside drawer and took it and a holy card of St. Joseph to him at the nursing home shortly before he died. And there was seeing the honest joy of a friend and former colleague who had gone back to the Church. And there was a series of moments of exasperation over the spectacle of the Episcopal Church—I sometimes attended services there with my family—absurdly deciding by vote that what had been a grievous sin for thousands of years was now suddenly a wonderful channel of grace.
But my return was also helped along by my academic research. About twenty years ago, I began studying the history of Americans' interest in Buddhism. You might suspect that my research was taking a somewhat self-referential turn, but, overtly anyway, I was studying what early- and mid-nineteenth-century religious seekers found compelling about Buddhism. I became convinced that one of the most important reasons for their interest was that they had a very long pole of theological grievance that they wanted to leverage against the Catholic Church and they were looking at Buddhism as a place they could plant their feet while they tried to dislodge her. I became quite intimate in a way with these folks, most of whom had become atheists and freethinkers or were quickly moving in that direction. And I very clearly recognized in them the same convictions that lie underneath, unspoken and assumed, the cultural and religious turmoil of our own time. But I also came to see their arguments, not as unassailable and as unquestionable components of rational belief, as they thought and as their ideological descendents today think, but as historically conditioned and peculiarly cramped and constrained. Their views came to seem to me as eccentric and passť as a whalebone corset or a periwig. I realized that they had no claim to universality or to truth. And, as far as my own beliefs were concerned, I could consign them to the dustbin of history.
With that, it was as if I was at last allowed to face the question of "Who do you say that I am?" for the first time and I could understand how I might answer, "You are Christ, the Son of the living God." I felt like I had been pursued, like in Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven." For my entire adult life, I had implicitly supposed that it was entirely up to me to judge the Faith, that I had to operate at every moment as if I had to bring it all under my scrutiny, and submit it to my private judgment. That now seemed entirely wrong. It was I who was under judgment. I realized that the initial religious impulse—or maybe an aspect or a moment of that initial impulse—whether of the will, the mind, or the heart, had to be one of repentance and submission. The only alternative now looked like a kind of idolatry, in which I painted my own face on the mute figures I placed on my throne. I recognized then that I had to return to the Church.
I showed up at my parish rectory one afternoon and told the priest that I wished to come back to the Church. "How do I do that?" I asked. I felt like I had been out in orbit to the far side of the universe for three decades, and perhaps I imagined some complicated process. But he said, "There's no ceremony for returning Catholics. Go to confession." "Is that all?" I said, with some disappointment. "Yes, that's it," he said. I suppose I felt like the Prodigal Son and hoped the Church would kill a fatted calf. But the Church is wiser than I am, and I later realized that I was pleased with the fact that, no matter how far I had gone, she still recognized me as her own. As for sacrificing a fatted calf, that happened in the dark, in the confessional booth, and I was the calf whose heart was pierced.
Ignatius Insight: As your article noted, the past few decades have witnessed a flurry of dialogue between certain Buddhists and some Christians (mostly Catholic). And it seems that many people, including not a few Catholics, think the two religions are fully compatible and complimentary. Are they? Why or why not?
Buescher: Christians and Buddhists have benefited from exchanging information about how they organize the practical necessities of the religious life—how monks and nuns are trained, how they conduct their daily activities, how they support themselves, how they relate to their lay communities, and so on. Catholics in general, I think, can also learn from Buddhists to recognize aspects of their own Faith that they have neglected for a while, but whose value our Buddhist brothers and sisters can bring back to our attention—the real value of memorizing scriptures, prayers, and the catechism, as one example. And Catholics should be humbled by the sheer amount of devotional and ascetic practices that Buddhist monks and nuns and lay people undertake. Given that many Catholics appear to have lost a vivid sense of their own sin, they could receive a salutary lesson from Buddhist reflections on suffering and the ways in which we implicate ourselves in it.
Having said that, once you get to a level of exchange about doctrine and practice, which is to say, describing the most basic source of our human problems and their solution, it is easy to get confused. Even when it seems as though there might be a level of agreement or shared insight, it often turns out that the agreement is quite thin—a mile wide and a word deep. Some of the holiest, wisest, and most compassionate people I have known have been Buddhists, but at the most profound level Buddhists and Christians are oriented toward different goals. And when you ask them "What is Truth?" they must give very different answers. It does no one any good to ignore that fact. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ always remain at the very center of what Christians believe. We cannot dress him up as a kind of cosmic principle or mythopoeic character in order to make the discussion easier.
A few months ago, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, while speaking in the United States, wanted to score a point against intolerance. He offered his audience the observation, which seemed to him to reveal an obvious absurdity, that some people might actually be so occluded as to think that it would be a good thing if his very holy friend the Dalai Lama were baptized. To him, it seemed, nothing could be more patently absurd. Unlike Bishop Tutu, I do not wear a bishop's miter. But I happen to know the Dalai Lama too, and he does seem to me to be one of the truly good people on the planet. Nevertheless, while I am in no position to judge either the Dalai Lama's or Bishop Tutu's state of grace, it does not seem absurd to me to think it would be a good thing if the Dalai Lama himself were to request and receive the sacrament of Baptism. How could it be other than a good thing? But do I have any expectation that this might happen? No. Would I wish to somehow force it on him? Not in the least.
Ignatius Insight: I first heard of you due to your excellent research and writings about nineteenth-century spiritualism in America. How did you become interested in that topic? What sort of work have you been doing in that field?
Buescher: When I began the historical research I already mentioned, I noticed that among those people in the mid-nineteenth century who were enthusiastically studying Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita, sitting right alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, were plenty of people who identified themselves as spiritualists. By day they worked with their fellow radical political and social reformers and by night they sat around tables and tried to contact the spirits of the dead through entranced spirit-mediums. Up to then I knew very little about spiritualists. But when I looked at them more closely, I found them to be the most interesting characters among all their fellow radicals. They were the ones in whom the fires of religious and social reform were burning the hottest. And they were the ones who were most willing to embrace the logic of radical reform and to follow that logic wherever it was going to take them. Their spirit guides were quite active, it turned out, in giving them revelations about how this imperfect and fallen world might be turned into a utopia through spiritual, social, political, and scientific revolution.
What I have published out of my research into nineteenth-century spiritualism has mostly been in the form of biography. That is because I have wanted to show these people as fully embodied characters. They very deliberately shaped their lives to their visions, turning them into utopian experiments, deliberately unconventional, strange, and dream-like. Some were led to fashion their lives into what reads today as a kind of science fiction novel. This was certainly the case with the followers of the man whose biography I published not long ago, John Murray Spear, the era's most flamboyant spiritualist, whose life and adventures were uniquely eccentric and spectacularly odd. There is no question, however, that, for the most part, their enthusiastic experiments in social reform and reorganization, including the practice of free love, had disastrous practical consequences in their lives and in the lives of those around them. I think that is extremely important to demonstrate, and biography seems like the way to do it.
Ignatius Insight: There exists in some Christian circles the notion that prior to the 1960s, the United States was a thoroughly Christian country with minimal to non-existent interest in the occult, spiritualism, free love, and esoteric religious practices. Is it fair to say that your book, The Other Side of Salvation, presents a rather different view of U.S. religious history? What are some aspects of nineteenth-century spiritualism that might surprise readers? Why can be learned from that era of American history?
Buescher: The Other Side of Salvation, although it turned out to be published before the Spear biography, was actually the result of my research on Spear, who was a Universalist minister before he turned to what he regarded as the new dispensation of spirit revelations. That book is a study of the very strong and extensive involvement of Universalists—and, to only a slightly lesser degree, of Unitarians—in the emergence and leadership of the spiritualist movement beginning from the middle of the nineteenth century in America. I was very surprised to discover this, and I believe that many Unitarian-Universalists were surprised by it as well when the book came out. My own surprise came from the previous picture I had of Unitarian-Universalism. The UUs I had known had always been rationalists, secularists, humanists, agnostics, and even atheists. I could not see how that could be connected to this deep involvement with conjuring spirits. I think you could say that most of my research and writing on spiritualism over the past decade or more has been a meditation, in one form or another, on that seeming disparity.
Rationalism, materialism, and atheism, as I have found them articulated in the nineteenth century, had a very specific and narrow historical form that was rooted in disputes over religious doctrine. To use a sort of Hegelian shorthand, they did not, and do not, escape from being embedded in a religious view, however much their adherents might have thought they did. Many of those disputes were conducted in their most pristine and intense form around the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and had to do with the relationship between nature and grace, with the sacramental view of the world, and with the relationship between God and man, and between heaven and earth. The answers that were settled on then have cascaded through the centuries since.
Both the materialists and the spiritualists of the nineteenth century, for example, seem to me to have been seeking to heal an acutely intolerable breach between nature and the supernatural, and between science and religion, and matter and spirit, which had been decisively opened up at the beginning of the Reformation. It is no longer surprising to me that national conventions of spiritualists in the nineteenth century were sometimes held conjointly with conventions of freethinkers, rationalists, and atheists. Many people found no contradiction in considering themselves both rationalists and spiritualists. It was only shortly before the twentieth century dawned that the two camps became clearly separate and, on the surface anyway, found themselves at odds with each other.
A thread can be traced back from the public advocates of what most Americans regarded as the godless notion of free love in the nineteenth century to radical Anabaptist ideas of the liberty of the spirit, as well as to the Reformation allergy to "works," which came to include, for daring experimenters, the institution of marriage. Another thread can be traced back to Pietist interest in inner alchemy, following the writings of Jacob Boehme and of the Hermetic revival in the Renaissance, carried forward by German Protestants in the centuries immediately after the Reformation. This manifested as the conviction that the individual's sanctified spirit could manipulate matter itself—through a kind of magical technique for transforming the material world for one's benefit, or even for engineering the Millennium.
It was this notion, in one form or another, that you can see at work all through American religious history. It is as American as apple pie. It was certainly present in a quite undiluted form in our socialist and communitarian utopian experiments, and in the hugely popular spiritualist movement, but also in the slightly later New Thought or Mind Cure movement, which included Christian Science, as well as in the New Age movement today. It is also a foundational principle of all the varieties of gospels of self-improvement, wealth, and abundance in which one's positive thoughts are supposed to reach out and literally transform the material world.
You can hear this kind of thing preached at quite a few megachurches every Sunday. Or, for that matter, you can turn on public television during pledge week and hear it from the mouths of life coaches and health and personal finance gurus.
Ignatius Insight: Your recent monograph, Aquarian Evangelist, is a fascinating study of Levi Dowling, the author of The Aquarian Gospel. What was unique about Dowling's writings and teachings? In what ways has he and his work influenced New Age understandings of spirituality, Christianity, and the person of Jesus Christ?
Buescher: Dowling was a Church of Christ minister from the Midwest whose beliefs, around the turn of the twentieth century, wandered out of the mainstream. He turned his attentions to homeopathy and then to Esotericism, especially Theosophy. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1908, channeled a new gospel, which he represented as the story of the "missing years" of Jesus before he began his public ministry. In it we learn that Jesus went to Egypt and then on to India and Tibet where he hobnobbed with various esoteric masters. Dowling had spent some time studying astrology and he explained that Jesus was the messiah of the "Piscean Age," and that this new gospel was meant to announce and initiate the world's entrance into another age, that of the "Aquarian Age." The book did not exactly create a splash at first, and he died shortly after it was published, but it always did have a following among Esoteric religious groups all through the first half of the twentieth century and both his book and his notion of the Age of Aquarius were popularized by writers for the underground newspapers in San Francisco in the 1960s.
As for the truth of its account of the life of Jesus—the thing is just pure fiction, pulled entirely out of the flotsam that Dowling found floating in his mind as he sat in his upstairs room in suburban Los Angeles. But for a certain kind of religious seeker who is already convinced that the imagination and the external world mirror each other—or even that the imagination or feeling or will directly creates the material world—it is not so easy to see why mere factual counterevidence should weigh against its account. For such a person, the text and the author and the reader all get tangled up together, implicating one another, so that the text works as both fact and fiction at the same time. The tale it tells is like an ideological virus that confuses the rational fact-checking defenses by declaring itself as fiction, but then once inside the mind, operating as fact. People read it as if they were being craftily let in on the grand secret behind what has always passed as fact. This is precisely how many people read something like The Da Vinci Code—Of course, it's fiction, they'll say one moment, but then in the next, they'll say something that shows that its clumsy and entirely bogus story has deeply modified or even replaced their earlier understanding of Christianity.
People's susceptibility to the "secret conspiracy of priests" view of Christian history and the assumption of a suppressed, original truth about Jesus, was enhanced by the Protestant Reformation, which partly justified itself on the reformers' almost entirely false assumptions—as, I believe, historical research has largely shown since then—that much of the essential core of Catholic Christianity was not derived from Jesus and his immediate disciples. The reformers believed that it was instead deliberately created long after the time of Jesus by priestcraft and that it was necessary to jettison "all that" in order to find out what Jesus really taught and who he really was.
But, not surprisingly, when you jettison "all that," you find yourself open to the possibility of believing that Jesus may actually have not existed at all, or may have been an interplanetary alien from the Dog Star, or may have been just another guy with a haircut and an attitude just like you—whoever you are—or may have been a spiritual wanderer who thumbed a ride to India and Tibet. Or whatever. People have been projecting this conspiracy theory onto the Catholic Church, in one form or another, all the way back to the ancient Gnostics. It is no surprise that the members of the Jesus Seminar, so intent on "demythologizing" Jesus, are enamored of the Gnostics. I tend to view the New Age movement, too, in its most essential points, as a resurgent Gnosticism.
Ignatius Insight: What books or projects are you currently working on?
Buescher: The one that I am struggling with right now is a book on bioethical issues, especially reproductive rights, but including a range of related issues, such as birth control, abortion, and eugenics. I am no theologian, so I have no illusions about helping to craft a comprehensive Catholic view on these issues. This book would be more like background reading for that.
Aside from the prophetic passages in Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II's writings on the Theology of the Body, apologists for the Church have seemed to me to address these issues as if they had just sprung into existence piecemeal and had to be beaten back with whatever big stick was closest at hand. But the issues are all related and that is why they are all arising now.
Virtually all of them were first broached in public by the mid-nineteenth-century social radicals that I have been studying. This book considers how these radicals arrived at their ideas, and how they argued for them. The historical continuity between their ideas and the practical proposals at issue today—even including cloning, IVF, genetic screening, designer babies, and euthanasia—is very strong. I think it would be useful to Catholic theologians and apologists to have the foundations of these arguments exposed to view, because they are not always obvious. For example, much of what is advocated today that is evidently at odds with the Faith is argued on the grounds of expanding the rights of the individual. And that also did play a large role in the arguments of the nineteenth-century reformers. But the underlying, comprehensive rationale often turns out not to be to enhance the rights of the individual, but to bring the individual under control. This is clearer in the arguments of the earlier reformers, back before the eugenics horrors of the twentieth century made reformers reticent about exposing the full logic of their arguments.
It is my impression that some Catholic apologists assume that these issues arise from purely secular principles and can be effectively addressed as such. But I believe that that will be ultimately insufficient. The thinking of the nineteenth-century Free Love radicals, who made their arguments against marriage and for "reproductive freedom," birth control and eugenics, was almost always immersed in older theological debates, especially centering on the doctrine of Regeneration. Catholics tend to just glaze over when they see this word, because, for them, it refers pretty much to Baptism, so I do not think that they often realize how important it is to these issues. Orestes Brownson was originally a full-blooded radical, who was acquainted with many of the people whose ideas I have studied. He knew their arguments very well and fully understood what they were aiming at. Some of the essays that he wrote after he converted to Catholicism cut very close to the bone on these issues, and I am finding him an acute and insightful guide.
The word "regeneration" carries tremendous weight in Protestant theology, reaching out into vast swaths of the Protestant project, and applying both to the individual and to society as a whole. At some point, the notion of spiritual regeneration was linked more and more decisively to the process of biological generation, and much of the thought of the nineteenth century "reproductive" reformers comes from their conviction that they could bring about the Kingdom of God on earth by jiggering the social structure and re-engineering human biological reproduction. They thought they could reorder the sequence of generation and regeneration, and in this way bypass Original Sin, as it were, and breed it out of the Race, redeeming biological generation, and creating the New Man, a sort of transhuman, angelic spirit. By doing this they could, in Eric Voegelin's phrase about the Gnostic goal, "immanentize the eschaton." To some, this has seemed like a promise of ultimate freedom, but it looks to me like a Faustian bargain. For it also means, quite clearly, that humans, by being brought under the control of mechanical reproduction, would be manufactured, as John Spear liked to put it, "just as one would a hoe or a spade." And it means that reproduction would be allowed only in that way.
The achievement of ultimate freedom will require the ultimate annihilation of human dignity, and no one will be able to opt out of such an impending Cultural Revolution, I am afraid, for its advocates regard it as the Parousia. It is important for Catholics to see what is at stake here.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
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The Spirit of Assisi: On Praying With Other Religions | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Dialogue Is Never Enough | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code | Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
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