Abandoning the Raft

  [Summary: attachment to views and opinions as the source of fundamentalism. Some of the evangelical Christian missions in Thailand]

This is a land of spiritual darkness … where everywhere the people live in a bondage of fear to spirits …

Does this sound like somewhere you know? Does it sound like Thailand? Psychologist George Kelly pointed out that everyone views the world through a set of Personal Constructs – a kind of ideological framework which produces expectations of how the world should be. No one can view the world directly, your constructs, however broad or narrow, will create a world from the world around you.

Just beneath the surface, however, the Christian will sense that few Thai people live with spiritual hope. Living in a perpetual cycle of fatalism and apprehension of the spirit world, Thailand has for many years suppressed the truth of the gospel. A spiritual people on the whole, many Thais express their religious devotion through offerings to spirits and images of Buddha, and seeking merit through good deeds

From an evangelical Christian viewpoint it seems, a people living without the Gospel of Christ inhabit a spiritually barren place; one in need of saving. And there are various programs in place to do just that – programs whose expressed aim is to convert (save) the Thai people.

This topic is worth consideration since it speaks to a very natural human need to have ones beliefs confirmed and validated by those around you – something called ditthupadana in Buddhism: attachment to views and opinions. This is the root of religious fundamentalism that so many ‘New Atheists’ have been calling into public awareness in a slew of contemporary literature that has populated bookshops worldwide in recent years. The term ‘views and opinions’ seems benign enough until you find examples such as:

One of Satan’s biggest tactics here in Thailand is that of fear (fear of spirits, ghosts etc.)

All the above quotes come from various ministries belonging to the Mission to the World – an evangelical setup that plans to convert the Thai people on four fronts:

  • Church planting – setting up new churches, so far numbering 150 in Bangkok.
  • Mercy Ministry – setting up ‘communities within communities’ in poor areas where the Gospel can bring hope.
  • Campus Ministry – the youth of the nation are identified as ‘rapidly growing in its affection for Western culture’, and being more open to new religious ideas than the older Thai generation. At the universities the church seeks to ‘extend the Kingdom of Jesus Christ into the hearts and minds of Thai university students’
  • English Teaching – ‘Because [teaching English] provides short-term missionaries great opportunities to come overseas without any Thai language ability and immediately make an impact’

Most Buddhists are not really worried. It might not be mission impossible, but sudden conversion en mass is improbable in a land where the people are happy and strong in their religion, customs and culture. Anyway, the issue is not that of one religion pitted against another since the moderate majorities would likely prefer that there be a choice of religious paths open. Most westerners interested in Buddhism and/or meditation would have appreciated more opportunity to hear, read and investigate the various paths back in their home countries. In this respect the Church has a lot to offer Thailand – in the offering of service, and teachings on humility and forgiveness, and it should be available for enquiring minds to investigate. There are no winners and losers with this kind of approach (this is TIE-land after all).

But there is a fine line between moderate religion and fundamentalism – something that Richard Dawkins and other ‘New Atheists’ have been charging. They point out that without political correctness protecting the moderate majority, the extremists would not be able to prosper unchallenged. Religion, and religious tactics, has been a topic forbidden from open examination for too long. The taboo should be broken, ‘breaking the spell’ as author Dan Dennett puts it, and the subject be permitted as a topic of concern.

In the case of the evangelical churches, the methods of ‘ministry building’ read more like infiltration than offering a choice.

[we have been] developing friendships with Thais through a weekly women’s brunch that meets at our house… [where we] are trying to intentionally grow that group towards a Bible or book study in which we can introduce them to the Gospel.

Part of this Gospel, in the evangelical approach, includes teaching that all who are not ‘born again’ in charismatic conversion, are condemned to eternal damnation, even other Christians. This rigidity of mind and opinion should not be a taboo subject, as it lies at the root of extremism, in various faiths and doctrines world-wide, that endlessly divides people and works against peace.

“We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah’s house”

This is from a Bangladesh captain who recently moved Bengali Muslim settlers in attempts to religiously capture the primarily Buddhist Chittagong Hill Tracts. The settlers have already taken away hundreds of acres of land belonging to the Jumma people in Maischari and its nearby areas with direct assistance from the army. There is no question of religious tolerance.

Buddhists can be fundamentalist too, but it is not a common characteristic. The fixation of views and opinions into immovable constructs closes the mind and spawns all kinds of fixations that do not foster a good foundation for meditation. Even the Dhamma, taught the Buddha, is like a raft – that should be abandoned once it has served its purpose; a very different approach than ‘fire and brimstone’, ‘eternal damnation’ and most especially the duty to convert others. Said evangelist Marjoe Gortner,

If I were God and someone were saved but did not have a burning ambition to save souls, I would send them to hell

Curiously, Marjoe did not believe a word of what he taught. But that is another story.

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About Cittasamvaro

Auto blogography of an urban monk
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3 Responses to Abandoning the Raft

  1. Gerald Ford says:

    Excellent! Very thought provoking. I particularly liked this part:

    This topic is worth consideration since it speaks to a very natural human need to have ones beliefs confirmed and validated by those around you – something called ditthupadana in Buddhism: attachment to views and opinions.

    I have heard of ditthupadana before, but I had never realized it could also be the cause of religious fanaticism, or that people seek validation through it. Makes sense in a scary way when you think of it. 🙂

  2. Tristan says:

    Excellent post. As one who grew up in a Christian Fundamentalist environment (though I abandoned it when I was 14), I can speak from personal experience.

    Put simply, the Evangelists are incredibly dangerous. For evidence, I’d like to point to world’s most famous convert: George W. Bush. Look what his theological views have wrought on the world in less than 7 years.

    On the local scale, these fanatics hold views that can only be described as a form of mental illness. They detest the human body and its needs. They detest female power. They detest gay men. They detest anybody who thinks differently from themselves. They detest the Earth itself.

    It took many years of self-reflection and therapy to overcome the self-hatred I was taught by this Church. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to discover Buddhism and mediation. So tolerant. So gentle. So true.

    To be fair, I think there are many forms of Christianity that are wonderful, so I’m not railing against those who live by the Christ’s principles.

    But fundamentalists, whether following Jehovah or Allah (is there really a difference?), have repeatedly shown the world that they will use any means to further their agenda. The Thai would be wise to prevent them from establishing a foothold in Asia.

  3. Cittasamvaro says:

    Yes, it is not Christianity that is at fault, but that tendency towards extremes of attachment to views … and the forcing of them on others, especially children (as if we wern’t messed up enough already ..). It appears in all religions, and some secular philosophies too, like communism.
    One of the missionaries here in Bangkok wrote about meeting a ladyboy, and said ‘even though I know the ladyboy will be damned for his sin, god still calls on me to love him’ . Hard to fathom. Like you mention vast swathes of humankind are equally destined for eternal suffering for a variety of ‘sins’. Including being a Buddhist Monk.
    If there is a God though, I am sure He does in fact call on us to love everyone.

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