alleged saviors of world’s religions not primarily
|THE SAVIOR ARCHETYPE (OP)
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08/17/2008 07:05 PM
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With these points in mind, let us now respond to Conze’s proposal. Mahayana Buddhism believes in the "dedication of merit," a means by which Bodhisattvas who have an excess of good karma can give this merit to those whose karmic debt otherwise dooms them to an endless cycle of death and rebirth. If karma is based on individual acts and our being responsible for these acts, there is no way that this transfer of merit can work without undermining the traditional view of karma.
While the Bodhisattva’s act is not actually a forgiveness of sins, sinners do indeed receive something that they have not earned; they are being given credit for acts which they have not performed. This represents a significant transformation of the doctrine of karma and firmly establishes the idea of grace in Buddhism. Unmerited grace is of course central to the savior religions.
In his article "Buddha and Christ," Ninian Smart shows that Christian soteriology also has the idea of the "dedication of merit." He explains: "The self-sacrificing Bodhisattva can out of the treasury of his merit...convey some of it to the otherwise unworthy devotee. This gives to Buddhist mythology a strong flavour of the Christian idea of Christ’s sacrifice as bringing about an immense or infinite abundance of merit available to the faithful"("The Work of the Buddha and the Work of Christ" in The Saviour God, p. 169).
Smart goes on to point out two differences: (1) Conze’s contention that the Buddhist concept remains within karmic laws, while Christian redemption is effected by a direct act of God; and (2) the self-sacrifice of the Bodhisattvas is moral, while Jesus’ act was a ritualistic death on the Cross.
We have already responded to Conze’s argument, but one more point is appropriate. Both Conze and Smart recognize that Buddhist soteriology ranges from the appeal to "self-power" by Theravadin and Zen monks to the total reliance on "other-power" in the radical fideism of Shinran. Conze points out, however, the notorious problems which most Buddhists have with the problem of individuation. He concludes that while Christians have no trouble in separating self and God, the Buddhists have no satisfactory way of maintaining a real distinction between self-power and other-power.
Conze’s thesis is tenuous on at least two counts. First, our Savior Archetype is a descriptive psychology which withholds judgment about the historicity of the various scriptural accounts and about the philosophical success of any particular theological doctrine. For example, Shinran unequivocally denies the efficacy of self-salvation and insists that salvation comes from a direct act of the Amitabha Buddha. Whether Shinran is able to defend this soteriology within the framework of Buddhist philosophy is not our concern in the Savior Archetype. Second, Conze appears to be unaware of the notorious difficulties surrounding Paul’s psychology. Exegesis reveals a tripartite soul o"not I but Christ" in me which rules the Christian’s life. Paul definitely did not solve, nor has any other Christian theologian to my knowledge, the problem of the exact relationship between the old man and new man in Christ. The problems of self-power and other-power are just as intractable in Christianity as they are in Buddhism.
In response to Smart’s second point above, let me just say that the Savior Archetype must include both the ritualistic soteriology of primordial religion, the mysteries, and Christianity, as well as the higher moral theories of redemption in Buddhism and Hinduism. As we have already seen, Jesus Christ was not the first dying and rising god, and he was not the first whose blood is supposed to redeem human sin.
The taurobolium (bull-sacrifice) in Mithraism and the rites of Cybele and Attis, in which the initiate was bathed and reborn in the animal’s blood, was usually reserved for rich people. As Godwin relates: "Poorer people made do with a criobolium, in which a ram was killed, and [they] were washed in the blood of the Lamb" (Godwin, op. cit., p. 111).
One last difference between Christianity and Hinduism-Buddhism should be mentioned. For Christians the original sin was, and continues to be, man’s refusal to obey God’s will. In Hinduism and Buddhism the primal sin is ignorance, the human condition which keeps us separate from Atman-Brahman or the Dharmakaya. The former can be called a religion of obedience (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); and the latter can be called a religion of knowledge, or a gnostic religion. (Religions of praxis, a third type, may be used to describe the Chinese religions Daoism and Confucianism.) The appropriate response to Christian sin is repentance and contrition; but the solution for most Buddhists (Pure Land sect excluded) is to gain knowledge. (For them Adam did no wrong by eating the forbidden fruit.) This distinction relates to the difference mentioned above between a moral and epistemological salvation and a ritualistic blood redemption.
One general conclusion can be drawn from the Savior Archetype: devotees of great spiritual leaders have been led by social-psychological reasons to attribute certain characteristics and experiences to the nature and life of their masters. They have deified them with supranatural attributes; they have produced similar legends about their births and lives; and they have celebrated similar sacred rituals and sacraments in their names.
Adapted from N. F. Gier, "The Savior Archetype," Journal of Dharma 4 , pp. 255-267, with additions and deletions.
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