This evening, I just finished watching the movie The Man From Earth, a movie about a man who tells his friends he’s a surviving Cro-Magnon, having survived about 14,000 years. It reminds me very much of the Heinlein book Time Enough for Love, which has much the same idea behind it.
If you want to see the movie, don’t read below; it’s a bit of a spoiler of the big twist in the middle of movie.
So the main character, the Cro-Magnon John, claims to have been the “true” Jesus – quite different from the Jesus of religious belief in mainstream Christianity. Rather, he was just a misunderstood fella who taught watered-down Buddhism to Jews in the Middle East. Christianity is just a misunderstanding; John decries the corruption of priests who are out to steal people’s money and the superstition of worshiping the Eucharist. The main message of John is, of course, Christianity is a priest-riddled lie. The history the movie offers, if you know anything about the history of Christianity, tends to be an ironically priest-riddled lie – it often just makes outright lies, remembering the whole time to make sure that “the Church” or “priests” are the villains (“In the primitive times, washing was ‘in.’ Then the Church condemned washing off God’s dirt – and so people were sown into their underclothes” Non-freaking-sense).
On the other hand, however, the Buddha is the “most exceptional person I’ve [John has] ever known.” Buddhism is painted in glowing terms of beauty, rationality, and love. The obvious message is that Buddhism is exceptional and wonderful whereas Christianity is all myth and superstition.
I think this is partly the effect of a “the grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. The writer obviously didn’t grow up in Asia, or you’d see the level of superstition that still riddles Asian religions. Buddhism is a very nice collection of philosophical/theological schools; don’t get me wrong. I just think the author is wearing particularly rose-coloured glasses. Like Buddhists haven’t ever killed each other in the name of religion, or had religious leaders rip them off, or persecuted other religious beliefs.
Give me a break.
The crux of the matter is: it’s exactly the sort of movie an American in the 21st century would make. It’s very culturally isolated.
This Cro-Magnon is at the peak of contemporary intellectual fashion.
He’s tied into the whole phenomenon of atheism in a way that only we can be. He relates, at one point, that as he migrated throughout the world, he encountered all sorts of gods. It was at this point he realized it was all “hogwash.” But that’s certainly not how a Roman, for example, ever interpreted other nations’ gods. Encountering Isis worship just led to incorporation in the pantheon of deities of Rome. The same is true of Asiatic religions encountering each other. The whole possibility of seeing religion as a rational enterprise in the way he does is a result of Christianity.
Prior to Christianity, the meaning of “your god doesn’t exist” was quite different. As soon as God was Truth and Being and Goodness for Christians, the possibility of a truth value of “false” for other gods came into existence. Prior to Christ, other gods could be “stronger” or “better,” but not really “un-true.” In ancient Greece there were some glimmers of this type of thinking, but only Christianity made the idea stick and put it into practice.
I and You, Mr. Reader, live in this world which is now “post-Christian” in the sense of having been influenced by these ideas. I think we’ve begun to move, in some strange way, back to that pagan belief about religion not possessing truth value. Just listen to the radio. Faith is a “feeling” and can’t be expressed in the public domain, let alone be really scrutinized rationally. Or, on the other hand, it is just irrelevant in general – this is the claim of militant atheism.
I think both of those views get why that form of Christianity is completely non-compelling. It’s because Buddhism at least proposes some theoretical or practical truth that it becomes compelling to them, whereas liberal Christianity proposes nothing.
Only a Jesus possessing truth value as the divine Logos can compete in a cage match with the Buddha.
If I’d have to place a bet, though, I’d put my money on a tie. I always liked Fr. Yves Congar’s statement that Catholics, and Dominicans in particular, see the truth of other people’s positions as fragments of the Truth Himself – if I saw truth in someone’s position, I would treat it with the same reverence as if someone had inadvertently dropped a Host of the Blessed Sacrament and I stooped to pick It up.
Maybe the Wisdom of God would see His (albeit, partial) reflection in the face of the Buddha.
Because, in the end, the Truth always triumphs.
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP