Today is Paul Tillich‘s birthday. In honor I thought I would share a bit of a conversation he had with students that is recorded in a book titled ‘Ultimate Concern.’ You can read the entire book for free @ religion-online!
Professor: What of other basic differences between Christianity and, say, Buddhism?
Buddha and Christ as Historical Figures
Dr. Tillich: There is a very clear distinction between the Buddhist and Christian attitudes toward history. I have made many inquiries as to this in my discussions with Buddhists. And the way these discussions ran is very interesting. I recall especially one large meeting where thirty Japanese Buddhists … professors, priests, and masters … were gathered. I asked, ‘Do you have any analogy to our two-hundred-year-old research into the historical Jesus? And they answered, ‘No! Only in the last twenty years have a few scholars been interested in the exact circumstances of the life of Gautama.’ (And here I must say not ‘Buddha,’ but ‘Gautama,’ speaking of this man Gautama who was called the Buddha … very similar to the Christ situation.) Then I asked, ‘What historical knowledge do you have of Gautama, since you derive your religion from this man?’ And they said, ‘We have the old traditions, which are not necessarily directly historical … the speeches and so on … which are somehow traced to this man. But even if he himself did not do or say these things, it does not matter.’ And then, of course, they spoke of the same experience you have just described, that there were ‘Buddhas’ … ‘inspired ones’ or ‘enlightened ones’ … before the man Gautama, and innumerable others after him.
Now they used a term which I would like to understand better. They spoke of ‘the Buddha spirit.’ They used that English word. Perhaps you could help me. What Christian expression would come close to ‘the Buddha spirit’?
Professor: I would say, perhaps, ‘the Christ within you.’
Dr. Tillich: Yes! Then the translation ‘spirit’ would be accurate, because the Christ within us is always the Spirit of the Christ within us, according to New Testament thinking … or, in more philosophical language, the Logos within us. That perhaps would be even a little nearer.
From the point of view of a comparison, this obviously means that for the Buddhists the relationship to history is insignificant. But for Jewish-Christian thinking, history is the place where a relationship occurs, and God himself is history. In Indian religions, while of course everyone lives in history … that is, in time and space … history itself does not reveal anything, although to some people who live in time and space some things are revealed. That is the fundamental difference from the Christian concept of the revelatory character of the historical process itself, especially in the great kairos, the kairos of Jesus the Christ of the cross.
Professor: I agree, and would say that no matter how much research the Buddhists do into the life of Gautama, they will never come up with the same attitude toward history. But it seems to me that there remains one significant thing as yet unanswered. You have indicated that Christ, or Jesus as the Christ, is unique in the sense that he bears this unique revelatory relationship to history. But aside from that historical relationship and its tremendous influence upon human events, is there any difference … we go back to Meister Eckhart … is there any difference between Jesus as God’s only son, and Eckhart’s you and me and everyone becoming God’s only son? These others may not be significant ‘only sons’ in an historical sense, but otherwise is there any significant difference in the way in which the kairos has entered into them?
Was Jesus Christ Unique?
Dr. Tillich: I agree with you that the historical answer, which you yourself brought up, is not the full answer. But we must of course also ask, ‘Why was this possible, this particular relationship to history?’ However we approach the thing, Christian theology always replies, ‘In the picture of the New Testament we have temptation and tragedy, but we have no estrangement from God in any moment in the life of Jesus as it is pictured.’ I intentionally use the word ‘pictured’ because these records are not historical records such as we might find about Caesar. But they reveal the power in him as it impressed itself on the disciples; beyond this we cannot go. This power produced that image, that story in which we see such struggles in Jesus … very human struggles. But we do not find any separation from God.
Later on, even in the New Testament where the story begins to be less specifically defined, there is the term ‘sinlessness,’ without sin. Now this word must be understood. If we consider the thirty years before his public life began, and then say that Jesus never became angry with his parents, for example, or create other biographical fantasies, we are mistaken. For this is not what the New Testament means. Sinlessness is a negative concept and can be understood only if we understand what ‘sin’ means. Sin means the power that separates from God; it is a demonic power. And the conquest of this demonic power through communion with God does not involve a mental psychology by which Jesus becomes a supernatural baby. The absence of such nonsense is something that reveals the greatness of the New Testament. If we compare it with some of the writings that were excluded by the early church from the biblical collection, we find in them all kinds of fantasies; the thirty years before his public life are filled with superstitious miracles, making pigeons out of clay and then animating them, for example … all such nonsense. We really should be grateful to the early collectors of the New Testament for the fact that they excluded all that. And so the picture that we do have reveals what can be described best by the phrase ‘continuous communion with God’ … no interruption of this.