Peter Feldmeier, a professor who holds the Margaret and Thomas Murray and James J. Bacik Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo, gave the speech of his position on Thursday: the Murray/Bacik Lecture in Catholic Studies.
For “West Meets East: A Spiritual Transformation,” Mr. Feldmeier spoke about how using some aspects of different religious traditions can contribute to a better imagining of Christianity.
Mr. Feldmeier, who is a Christian, has taken part in Buddhist retreats and other encounters with Asian faiths and has studied world religions. In his talk, he read aphorisms of the Buddha as collected in the Theravadan Buddhist text, the Dhammapada, and suggested how Christian Scripture can be read with the same approach to focus on the here and now rather than the hereafter. He brought up Zen koans and compared the purpose of contemplating those perplexing questions to a way of thinking about Christian texts. And he looked at the different approaches of Daoism and Christianity.
“Could Buddhism help us understand Jesus’ parables and his teachings better?” he asked. “I think it really can.”
Mr. Feldmeier joked that for next year’s lecture he could repeat a legendary teaching about Nirvana. He could, like the Buddha, simply hold up a flower for an hour. Mr. Feldmeier turned to his colleagues in the university’s Center for Religious Understanding and said it would be profound, but saw that he’d have to do more preparation to please them than just bring a flower.
For the use of Zen to illumine a person’s Christianity, Mr. Feldmeier spoke about the koans that ask paradoxical questions, and said that the aim is not to find the right answer but, in a way, to understand the concept of the question.
“We might begin by realizing that idiosyncratic language is already embedded in our own tradition. The great theme in Jesus’ preaching was the kingdom of God,” Mr. Feldmeier said. “He regularly provoked our imagination about it, but never told us what it is.”
“The particular wisdom of the Zen tradition,” Mr. Feldmeier said, “is that it trains us to stray from trying to figure out the paradox and urges us rather to enter it for its transformational possibilities.”
For Daoism, Mr. Feldmeier spoke about some concepts from that tradition’s texts the Dao De Jin and the Zhuangzi. Rather than viewing the universe “as divinely governed by unchanging natural and moral laws” that come from God in the Western view, Mr. Feldmeier said, the Daoist writings present a world “where there is no permanent reality … There is just the ceaseless flow of life. Even physical things are more like events that are intrinsically related to other events.”
With this reorientation of thinking and being, Mr. Feldmeier said, dao, or way-making, is “a kind of eternal emergence.” He called attention to the yin and yang, to life as art, to a fluid way rather than Christian-imagined absolute natural law. “Think of how a nonimposing, nonconstricting posture could help one in pastoral ministry,” Mr. Feldmeier said. Rather than seeking solutions and conclusions, a person can “stop seeking a personal agenda and … be present as the suffering person needs one to be present.”
“These are just snapshots,” Mr. Feldmeier said in concluding his talk, “of possibilities of engaging other religions traditions in ways that expand our own proposed world.”