Through a Glass Darkly: Christian Non-Theism

July 28, 2008 by     Print This Post Print This Post

Prophet Elijah, 15th century icon


Moses has to settle for a dialogue with a burning bush; the Israelites roll the dice on a pillar of dust and flame; whatever Job witnesses he does so in a whirlwind, and keeps mum about his encounter. One day, we will see the Lord “face to face”; but for now, as Saint Paul rhapsodizes, we can only glimpse the divine “through a glass darkly.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, no one sees the face of God and lives (unless one is a televangelist). Ultimate reality conceals itself from the discursive mind and manifests only in the elements of nature. These are but a few of the Scriptural sources of Christian non-theism.

From a Buddhist perspective, theism is “fixed mind”; from a Judeo-Christian perspective, it is “idolatry,” which is a sin. (For the secular modernist, theism is neurosis à la Freud.) Christian theology is shot through with non-theism. At the beginning of the High Middle Ages, for instance, Saint Anselm (1033–1109) postulates that God is that which is beyond mind’s conception; fast forward to the Death-of-God era, and Paul Tillich (1886–1965) writes with a distinctly Dharmic sensibility that God is the “ground of being.” Of course, Sunday morning congregants occasionally fall prey to theistic theism. The killjoy Jehovah who casts down thunderbolts and the cosmic Santa Claus who doles out spiritual bobbles do provide certainty and comfort, but, they also infantilize the minds of the devout. The good news is that the great majority of mainstream Christians are not Biblical literalists. They have a more spacious view of the cosmos. From my own experience at Saint Agnes Church, I can report that there is a vanguard of parishioners who are happy to take shamatha instruction from me, a Christian Shambhalian, when I transpose the language of meditation into the vernacular. It’s not that great a leap for them or for me.

Sangha members would do well to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995) and Christ and Buddha as Brothers (1999). The Vietnamese monk grew up in a country teeming with French missionaries and saturated with Catholic culture. He understands the cathedral-like structure of theology and has a genuine devotion to Christ. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks Christian with no trace of an accent. In my travels, I have only ever met a handful of sangha members who can both speak Christian and love the language.

Given their heart connection to the Buddhadharma and the time they must invest in practice, it’s perfectly reasonable that Buddhist Shambhalians would have little desire to master the grammar and syntax of Christian non-theism. If the subject is broached, a few can cite Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) as a non-theistic fellow traveler or reference the friendship that the Vidhyadhara shared with the great Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915–1968). More often than not, though, what I hear in the Shambhala center cloak room are mutterings about the benighted Christian right, and what I hear in church is intercessory prayer for hapless “non-believers,” which can be code for Buddhists and practitioners of other Eastern religions.

Thich Nhat Hahn, calligarphy

So how do we overcome this dialogue of the deaf? The Speaking-of-Silence type Buddhist-Christian events are powerful gatherings, but logistically difficult to pull off. The strategy that I’ve adopted over the last twenty years is to use the Shambhala teachings, which for me constitute a secular or civic path, to serve as a bridge between Buddhism and Christianity, two religious paths. I’ve learned enough Buddhism to be able to speak the language, albeit with a thick accent. Whenever someone at the center shows an interest in my religious tradition, I try to translate the discourse of my Christian faith into the Buddhist tongue. A good place to start is with Greek apophatic or negative theology. If my interlocutor is inquisitive enough, we can travel quickly from Mount Athos to Vulture Peak Mountain. Naturally, all languages have their idioms. There is not a perfect Christian analogue for every Buddhist concept, and vice-versa. But, ultimately, the point of the endeavor is to move beyond language, beyond religion.

In my years of Shambhala training, I’ve noted that near the end of a long Saturday afternoon in the shrine room there are neither theists nor non-theists. Instead, there are “tea-ists”: frazzled meditators anxiously anticipating the four o’clock tea break. Whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian, if you sit long enough on a gomden, you will realize that neither Buddha nor Christ is going to swoop down and save you from the vexation of your mind and the roiling in your heart. A Christian in Shambhala is like Elijah. Elijah searches everywhere for God: he climbs mountains, he braves fire and earthquakes, and he shakes his fist at the empty sky … until he is exhausted. When Elijah finally stops ranting, when his heart finally breaks, he sits down and starts to listen to the silence of the hills. It’s in this silence that he first hears the Word of God. Elijah: Judeo-Christian prophet or bodhisattva manqué? Merely human, I suggest.



Image Credits

Top: Elijah, fifteenth-century icon

Bottom: Thich Nhat Hahn, calligraphy



12 Responses to “Through a Glass Darkly: Christian Non-Theism”

  1. meg on September 28th, 2009 4:16 pm

    this is a lovely article. and as one who continues to study buddhism, shambhala teachings and mystical christianity i wonder if a further expansion of this contemplation may include gnosticism as well?

  2. Edward Michalik on September 28th, 2009 4:50 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Meg. There’s rich soil to plow in the field of Buddhist-Christian studies. For me, the time isn’t right for such a discussion. Until Shambhala’s factions reconcile or split—a split is likelier and perhaps better than the current rancor— any attempt to open the flower would be confusing for practitioners of either faith.


    Ed Michalik
    Roman Catholic
    KSS member

  3. damchö on September 28th, 2009 7:38 pm

    Beautifully written Ed, and I’m so happy to see these reflections here. The time is ripe for this level of bridge-building which seems to me equally Shambhalian and in the spirit of Christ. Thank you.

  4. Edward Michalik on September 28th, 2009 7:42 pm

    You’re welcome, Damchö.

  5. John Tischer on September 28th, 2009 7:56 pm

    Is theology doctrinal or philosophical? Is it belief based? Is it experience based? How, in Christianity, does someone get where Elijah got? Is there a path for that, or, was it destroyed with the heretics (gnostics)? Good article.

  6. rita ashworth on September 29th, 2009 5:39 am

    This is an interesting article about the connections between Christianity, Buddhism and Shambhala

    I have just been reading Edwin Bernbaums book the Way to Shambhala which details the shambhala ‘concept’ as being present in all religions in the modern age and in the religions that pre-date it.

    Myself I explored Christianity before I got into Buddhism -re some religious experiences I had I visited many Christian churches for about a year every Sunday. I nearly became a methodist -primarily thinking back this was because of the sense of community, the openness of the place and the people and perhaps the connection to reformist politics.

    My mother was a Catholic but I was not brought up in the faith but looking back I can see some of my ideals are based on Catholic theology such as the concern for others. There does need to be more debate happening between these two great religions in the future I agree with you on that. My ‘conception’ of Shambhala is that still the teachings should be open to everyone of every faith as the Vidyadhara wanted so the Sakyong’s present position does indeed highlight a crisis for a lot of people

    ‘Rancour’ in the discussion about the future of Shambhala – I would not call the present discussion going on on rfs of this flavour -its merely a discussion of what is coming up in peoples minds about the Shambhalian teachings which we all care about.

    A split – there is indeed splits and splits re the Orthodox Church splitting off from the catholic church in 1054 but in that time there have always been discussions going on between the two churches of Christianity. For example the present Archbishop of Canterbury thinks highly of the Orthodox Church and has ecumenical gatherings with them. If there was indeed though a split in Shambhala we could still have a sense of ecumenism and meet together to discuss our differences and similarities.


    Rita Ashworth
    Stockport UK

  7. Dudley Jackson on December 22nd, 2009 11:37 am

    Regarding this topic, there is a wonderful interview with Father Thomas Keating at the following address: . Once you get to the webpage, part one of the interview is available in streaming audio. However, if you right click on the download button, you can download the MP3 of the entire interview (both parts 1 and 2) . Or you can read part one of the interview by clicking on ‘Read the Transcript’ . Enjoy.

  8. Dudley Jackson on December 25th, 2009 12:12 am

    I was wrong before. There is actually a part two even if you download the mp3. It can be found at:

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