Can a Christian believe in No-Self? by Jay McDaniel
Dear Mr. McDaniel, I understand that you are a Christian influenced by Buddhism. I am studying Buddhism in a class in world religions today; and my professor introduced us to the idea that according to Buddhists we have no substantial selves. I think it is called An-atman or something like that. She is a Buddhist herself, and she mentioned that this way of thinking is quite similar to that found in the philosophy of Whitehead. Is this true?
If it is I am wondering what this means for people like me. I am a Christian and I like to think that I have a self who is related to God who also has a self. Often at night I pray to God and sometimes I even think that God speaks back, not in words but in feelings. If I learn from Buddhism, must I give up the idea that God and I have selves? I am kind of nervous about this.
An Evangelical Friend Who Is a Little Nervous
Dear "Evangelical Friend Who is a Little Nervous,"Thank you for your note, and I understand your nervousness. Certainly there are people who embrace the doctrine of no-self and believe that, in so doing, they are denying an essential teaching in Christianity. They would say that if you accept the Buddhist idea, you must give up your evangelical faith. But along with other process-oriented Christians I believe they are wrong. I believe that Christians, too, can deny the reality of substantial selves and become, as it were, better Christians. Here's how things look to a Whiteheadian influenced thinker like me.
The Idea of No-Self
Buddhism is well known for its teaching that we humans have no substantial selves. This means three things: (1) that amid the flow of our experience from birth to death there is no enduring substance which remains unchanged over time, (2) that amid the flow there is no “self” which stands above or outside the experience as its owner or possessor, and (3) that within the immediacy of each moment we are not isolated by ourselves, because each moment is dependent on, connected to, and inclusive of, the whole of reality.
These three ideas can be very helpful. The first meaning invites us to recognize that our lives are activities of becoming. We never step in the same river twice and we who do the stepping are never quite the same either. This is really good news. It means that, even if we have made mistakes in the past, we are never doomed by our pasts. We can, with God’s help, become new people.
The second invites us to recognize that even our own experiences cannot really be owned by us, but only lived by us. If we are cooking a meal, we are the act of cooking. If we are listening to a friend, we are the act of listening. If we are struggling with life, we are the struggling. This is good news, too. It means, in the spirit of Zen, that we can give ourselves to our actions, fully and completely, and not simply be spectators of our lives. If we want to walk with Jesus, we can do this with the whole of our lives. We become the walking. If we pray, we become the praying. When we pray and become the praying, our prayers are really authentic. They become songs from the heart.
The third invites us to recognize that we are never alone. Always we are connected to the wider world. Always we are examples of inter-being. As a Christian you will want to say that even God is a living example of inter-being. What makes God “God” is not that God is the least connected reality there is, but the most connected. In the language of Christianity, God is Emmanuel: God is with us.
In Whitehead’s philosophy the withness of God is not simply God reaching out to us, or God’s self-emptying. Some theologians call this kenosis. But this way of thinking of kenosis is only half the story. From Whitehead’s perspective the world empties itself into God, too. Everything that happens in us and to us happens in God and to God, too. The tears and joys of human beings and other living being pour into God’s own life, moment by moment, because God is a Deep Listening. Thus it is not simply the case that God is with us; it is also true that we are with God, immanent within God. We are embryos within the divine Womb, even if we do not believe in the Womb at all.
These, then, are some of the ideas that come to my mind when I think of the Buddhists idea of no-self. They are ideas to which Whiteheadians subscribe, too, and which, I believe, can make sense to Buddhists as well. They apply to God, too. Pure Land Buddhists speak of a heavenly Bodhisattva – Amida Buddha– who receives and listens to prayer, and who is filled with love. I believe that what Christians mean by “God” is similar to what Pure Land Buddhists mean by Amida Buddha. Christians add that Amida was revealed but not exhausted in Jesus.
But all of this is really quite intellectual and far away from where most of us live our lives day by day. When you wrote me your letter, you had a sense that “you” were writing the letter to “me” and that “I” would receive it and respond. Buddhists, too, write letters. They, too, use words like “you” and “me” and “I.” They, too, know that individuality is real. The Buddhist idea of no-self is a denial of the substantial self, but not of individuality.
Concrescence as Individuality without Substantial Selfhood
What they propose, along with Whitehead, is that these words are social conventions, giving us a sense of stability, but that the words really point to activities, not things. I suspect that this might give you a new way for thinking about your own identity. You can think of your own individuality, not as a single reality with a fixed identity, but as a changing reality which has different identities in different contexts. Sometimes you are a student, sometimes a friend, sometimes a fun-lover, sometimes a son, sometimes a free spirit, sometimes a mathematician.
You do not need to be attached to any of these identities as if they were completely “you.” Indeed, you do not even need to be attached to the identity of “being a Christian” as if it is completely you. You are always more than any of these identities, because you are the immediacy of each present moment, which forever eludes categorizations. You are a concrescing subject: a self who is the many becoming one and who is composed of the many which are becoming. Other people, too, are acts of becoming. For a little more on this, see Concrescence as the Face of the Other (GO).
Do you remember the story in the New Testament where Jesus asks: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) Jesus was many things to many people, but I believe that in the moment he asked the question, the Buddha might have said to him: “You are this present moment.” And I believe that Jesus might have smiled at the Buddha and said: “Yes, you are right.” Christians believe that the present moment of Jesus included his trust in the availability of fresh possibilities (his faith) and his sense of being called by God to bring good news to the world. Surely he did bring such news. But he, like the Buddha, brought this good news moment by moment, as he loved and cared, hoped and dreamed. For many people he was the good news. He is for me, too.
I suspect that you, too, are good news in many moments of your life. You forget yourself, you give yourself to the moment, you respond to the call of the moment, in a spirit of love. In these moments the good news of Christianity and the good news of No-Self come together. You become what you want to be every moment of your life, a disciple of Christ. That’s what matters to you as an evangelical Christian. I think Buddhism can help you become a better Christian.