G. K. Chesterton: The Confused Comparison of Christianity and Buddhism

It is often casually said, with an air of anecdotal authority that belies the need for actual evidence, that Christianity and Buddhism are basically the same. However, the only singular aspect of either religion that is ever adduced to support this theory is that they both promote an ethic of non-violence; other than that the similarities they share are those common to most all religions – thus, the supposed similarity of the two perhaps says more about our indifference to genuine difference between religious systems, and our desire to further Westernise the scraps of actual Buddhist teaching that we find congenial, than it does about the two religions themselves. G. K. Chesterton encountered this theory of supposed similarity in his time as well, and had this to say in reply:

That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is especially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove of cruelty and excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Orthodoxy (1999), p.193, Hodder and Stoughton.

                Conversely to what we have led ourselves to believe, and what had begun to be believed in earnest during Chesterton’s lifetime, the only way in which Christianity is similar to Buddhism is in terms of its general approval of natural law and common moral intuition. When it comes to what kind of view of existence (and moreover, of salvation) they each promote though, they are almost complete opposites. According to his usual method of invoking imagery and gaining insights from what is most emblematic about a culture or religion (as opposed to conducting a systematic survey of all their features), Chesterton points to the types of saint that Christianity and Buddhism each produce, suggesting that through their expressions we see two drastically different views of life:

No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real continuity between forces that produce symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things.

ibid, p.194.

                The first interesting thing that Chesterton infers from these two opposing images is that Buddhism conceives of an essentially impersonal pantheism, and the world as illusory, so that salvation is an absorption into the ‘world-soul’ of which we are all really part by ridding ourselves of any misapprehension that the things of the world have real substance, or even that our own selves are real. This worldview, which counsels the elimination of desire in order to escape suffering, also means an elimination of love – we cannot love our neighbour if they do not really exist. This metaphysical melting pot is in direct contradiction to the Christian worldview which sees each soul as created uniquely by God, creation as a whole as something not only real but essentially good, and true, self-giving love between persons as the whole goal of life.

The other thing that Chesterton recognises is the practicalities that follow on from a view of life which is pantheistic, impersonal and fatalistic. A theology which sees no fundamental difference as existing between persons and ultimate reality as being akin to an eternally spinning wheel unable to be changed by our endeavours will inevitably give rise to quietism and social indifference. On the other hand, a theology that prizes the uniqueness of persons and venerates free will gives rise to all kinds of action and enterprise – particularly social reform. Christianity’s insistence that God is utterly different from His creation and transcends it by both kind and degree has led to a culture of political adventure and curiosity about what God has made; the Buddhist saint looks inward and changes little around him, whereas the Christian saint looks up and out in wonder, and moves mountains.

Christianity does of course also teach that God is immanent within His creation, but we live in times when the divine transcendence requires a great deal more emphasis – it is partly because we so commonly think of God in pantheistic terms that Christianity and Buddhism have been able to be compared at all in the first place. Nevertheless, as a reminder of Christianity’s insistence on the immanence of God, and of the subtle but important difference between that teaching and the view of Buddhism, this passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Book VI, Chapter 10) serves as an eloquent summary:

Under your guidance I entered into the depths of my soul, and this I was able to do because your aid befriended me. I entered, and with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw the Light that never changes casting its rays over the same eye of my soul, over my mind. It was not the common light of day that is seen by the eye of every living thing of flesh and blood, nor was it some more spacious light of the same sort, as if the light of day were to shine far, far brighter than it does and fill all space with a vast brilliance. What I saw was something quite, quite different from any light we know on earth. It shone above my mind, but not in the way oil floats above the water or the sky hangs over the earth. It was above me because it was itself the Light that made me, and I was below because I was made by it.

Confessions of Saint Augustine (1974), pp.146-147, Penguin.

                Saint Augustine describes the deep introspection involved in Christian contemplation, and how in this process he is able to encounter God within him. However, there is a consistent insistence on the absolute distinction between Creator and creature – God may be closer to us than we are to ourselves (to borrow again from Augustine) but He remains different from us, and we remain, each one of us, something separate and unique, that He draws back to Himself as a hen gathers its chicks under its wings. The Buddhist metaphysic however, would have us be essentially one with what we meet within, and our final goal as being more akin to droplets of water returning to the ocean. Unfortunately, this is a view of Heaven which one hears with increasing frequency in our culture, even from Christians.

Pantheistic immanence, impersonality, an ultimate lack of distinction between the things of the world (including the people in it), are all key to Buddhism, and are all antithetical to the way that Christianity sees the world. These differences underpin the two religions and are manifested in the way that those who truly believe their tenets look at things (as expressed by the two types of saint Chesterton noted). This way of seeing the world, for the devout Buddhist, finds its culmination in the approach to the things in it, and the desire we have for them:

Perhaps a more exact statement would be that Buddha was a man who made a metaphysical discipline; which might even be called a psychological discipline. He proposed a way of escaping from all this recurrent sorrow; and that was simply by getting rid of the delusion that is called desire. It was emphatically not that we should get what we want better by restraining our impatience for part of it, or that we should get it in a better way or in a better world. It was emphatically that we should leave off wanting it. If once a man realised that there is no really no reality, that everything, including his soul, is in dissolution at every instant, he would anticipate disappointment and be intangible to change, existing (in so far as he could be said to exist) in a sort of ecstasy of indifference. The Buddhists call this beatitude and we will not stop our story to argue the point; certainly to us it is indistinguishable from despair.

The Everlasting Man (2010), pp.87-88, Martino Publishing.

                Chesterton draws together here all those aspects of Buddhism which are key to its outlook and in which it also so happens to differ almost completely from Christianity, and he highlights their fundamental difference by showing how these aspects shape one’s view of life. Basically, if one was really consistent in following the tenets of Buddhism, this would lead to a philosophy that is actually against life – against the reality of our existence and the rightness of loving it, as well as the things and people in it. Thankfully, not only are most Western admirers of Buddhism remarkably ignorant as to what it really teaches (and so do not base their ethics on a philosophy of negation and renunciation), but Buddhism itself is happily inconsistent on this front as well – despite believing in the illusory nature of all things and therefore the ultimate relativism of all our moral intuition, it still counsels its followers to act as if people are people and desire for their well-being is something that is worthwhile and…well, desirable.

The conflation of Christianity and Buddhism themselves though, results from a confusion amongst ourselves as to what either of the two religions really stand for, which confusion itself stems from an assumption that all religions are basically the same and are able to be reduced to a set of common platitudes about niceness to one another and inner peace within ourselves. Also, our obsession with increasing comfort and avoiding suffering (to the extent that this shapes the moral choices we make and even the moral frameworks – such as they are – that we propose for ourselves to inhabit), has doubtless led to a widespread sympathy for a religion that recommends abstraction from the world as a means of escaping suffering completely. Again, we can be thankful (on this front at least) that our age is as inconsistent as it is fickle, and most people who subscribe to a world-denying philosophy do not really act as if the world is not real. Nevertheless, this confusion points to a spiritual sickness and intellectual torpor from which we have yet to emerge. Let us hope and pray another Chesterton (or his words raised up again) to appear and shake us to our senses.

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13 thoughts on “G. K. Chesterton: The Confused Comparison of Christianity and Buddhism

  1. Michael:

    Excellent summary on the comparisons between Christianity and Buddhism. I find the current Western fascination with Buddhism interesting. I also have a somewhat unique perspective. I live approximately one mile from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and there is another Cambodian Buddhist Temple three miles away (both are closer than any Christian church, even though I live in country near a midsize city in the Midwestern US).

    As part of my journey back to Catholicism (or my “discovery of England” adventure as G.K. Chesterton would say), I studied Buddhism. I have a lot of respect for Buddhism and authentic practitioners of Buddhism. It is a comprehensive belief system that has survived over 2,500 years. Moreover, similar to the great Greek philosophers that also pre-dated Christ, Buddhism does have some good insights on human nature, particularly the nature of attachment to impermanent things. However, ultimately Buddhism fails to provide a satisfying answer to what is authentic and real. I have a hard time getting comfortable with a religion where the First Noble Truth is that “Life is Suffering” and the remaining belief system focuses on trying to escape that suffering. The contrast with the optimism of Christianity, with its primary tenants of “God is Love” and the goal should be to seek and live out ultimate Love is much more appealing. More importantly, Christianity has the history of God’s revelation (God’s seeking man rather than merely man’s quest for God), culminating with the Resurrection.

    I believe there are several reasons for the West’s current fascination with Buddhism. First, there is a somewhat justifiable disillusionment with Christianity. If Christianity is supposed to be about love, why are so many “Christians” not loving people? (It is interesting that the same type of disillusionment with Buddhism exists in the East where Christianity is growing rapidly). Second, the Western style of Buddhism with its focus on individual enlightenment vs. the communitarian philosophy of Christianity is more appealing to a society that focuses on the individual, such as the United States. Western “Buddhism” does not really ask us to do much compared to authentic Christianity. Third, it is evidence that despite living in a deeply materialistic culture, there is something deep inside of humanity that longs for the sacred.

    Ultimately, Christianity can benefit from this current fad because it more adequately addresses this need. Indeed I hope that the current interest in “meditation”, which nominally stems from Buddhism will draw people back to the great 16th Century Catholic mystics such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola. These great mystics of 500 years ago are largely lost in mainstream Western culture today but their insights offer something far greater than the current McMeditation craze that is popular today.

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • Thank you William! I too find the fascination with Buddhism fascinating, though occasionally somewhat dispiriting, as like you say, much of what people attach themselves to is not really Buddhism at all, but bits of that we find congenial, tagged on to a wider framework of a highly individualistic spirituality, without any of the challenges that might be involved in the original teaching (or indeed of Christianity). It is not uncommon to find those espousing a commitment to Buddhism also involved with various New Age practices too.

      You make a very good point though, that another reason people have looked elsewhere for their spiritual home is due to a lack of integrity (and sometimes outright hypocrisy) amongst Christians. This is, I suppose, one of the pitfalls of Christian societies becoming more affluent – the religion becomes more and more conventional, and it becomes easier to ignore its central challenges to our self-sufficiency and to reach out to others in love.

      However, I do share your hope that this is desire for ‘something more’ to life, whilst misdirected, is a good thing insofar as it will hopefully lead people to rediscover what made Christianity so challenging and enriching in the first place (quite possibly through people like Saints Teresa, John and Ignatius). I have the same hope for our culture at large actually – there is only so much ephemera and superficial satisfactions that one can gorge oneself on before a certain hollowness begins to creep in, and the experiment of radical autonomy has to burn itself out sooner or later; it just isn’t a sustainable way to live. When people realise this, the ‘old ways’ will be waiting for them 🙂

  2. I once read a book titled “The Accidental Buddhist” and in it was an interview between the author and a Catholic priest who was also an “ordained Buddhist monk”. This caused me some confusion. I had spent years looking at Asian religions and philosophies and finally decided that I was a product of a Judeo-Christian world-view, like it or not, and any hope for figuring things out was best found within my familiar surroundings. To put it another way, I was never going to be Asian. I finally decided the priest had conflated types of meditation and while perhaps it was useful to him, it was likely the opposite for anyone stumbling across him that did not really understand contemplative prayer (and how many do, anyway?)

    Then I ran across this brief summative quote from Chesterton: “Buddhism is not a creed, it is a doubt.” And that cleared things up for me considerably.

    Nice article. Thanks.

    • Haha – I like that ‘not a creed, but a doubt’ quote from Chesterton! That does sum things up rather nicely actually 🙂

      I can certainly empathise with the process of searching through the various Asian religions – they are, on the surface of things, very attractive, and I can see why so many people go for them (or some version of them) nowadays. But for me, whilst I get what you say about being the product of a Christian culture etc, the reason I couldn’t get on board with Eastern religion was this collapsing of everything into one impersonal morass, and the denial of the reality of creation – people and things just mean too much, and it seemed to me, quite frankly, a bit daft to deny so much of what makes life worth living.

      Also, good point about how few of us there are that actually understand contemplative prayer 🙂 Thanks for the comments!

      • I think you nailed the crux, so to speak. The Judeo-Christian world view affirms reality. Since I came to Buddhism with an unconscious position that things are, the idea that, no really, things are not, and neither am I was untenable.

        Put another way, I cannot get to God from nothing. I have to start with something, something that exists, regardless of how limited my perception may be. If the story of the Buddha that I’ve heard is true, that he was a prince in luxury and that when he left his palace walls and saw poverty on the level it exists in India he was so shocked that he determined that all is illusion, then it ranks as one of the great give-ups of history in my mind.

        I could not figure out how to get to Truth from nothing. So, I stopped trying.

        • This is an excellent summary of the situation, thank you – and it draws together very nicely the reasons for not believing Buddhism to be true and the reason someone coming from a Christian culture would find it hard to ‘enter in’ to that particular worldview. Also, when you write ‘I cannot get to God from nothing. I have to start from something’ it reminds me very much of Chesterton’s description of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ basic approach to philosophy 🙂

  3. Pingback: G. K. Chesterton on Suicide and Martyrdom | Journey Towards Easter

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