The writings of Gregory Schopen, an iconoclastic Buddhist academician/researcher have become a topic in the Buddhoblogosphere at the same time that a very curious article about the evolution of Christianity came out in the new April issue of Atlantic magazine.
There are things similar about Schopen's focus in his writing and the thrust of the Atlantic piece, "...One World, Under God." Both have me wondering if Flatland Thinking plays a part, restricting the understanding of both Schopen and Robert Wright, the author of the Atlantic article.
As concisely as I can, here is a description of what is meant by flatland, borrowing loosely from Ken Wilber's book Integral Psychology:
Modernity, as compared to premodernity, managed to differentiate the Big Three of art, morals and science, on a large scale, so that each began to make phenomenal discoveries. But as the Big Three dissociated, and scientific imperialism began its aggressive career, all ‘Is’ and all ‘we’s’ were reduced to patterns of objective ‘its’, and thus all the interior stages of consciousness – reaching from body to mind to soul to spirit – were summarily dismissed as so much superstitious nonsense. The Great Nest collapsed into scientific materialism – into what Wilber calls “flatland” – and here the modern world, by and large, still remains.In his Atlantic article, Robert Wright tells us that new "clues" that "come from the modern world, and they’re all around us" tell us that "[f]or Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.
"To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, ... those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces."
Schopen, for his part, seems to regale in discoveries that associate early Buddhism with sometimes seemingly-shockingly mundane activities for the modern era, instead of those high-minded things we associate with canonical texts.
In his review of a collection of Schopen essays called Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India Arnold Dan writes [emphases, mine],
... when reading these essays all at once, one is struck by the recurrent statement of a specious dichotomy between what religious people "actually did," and what canonical texts say they should have done. Overcorrecting the biases of his philological predecessors, Schopen insists on this dichotomy in a way, it seems to me, that reflects a problematic view of how canonical texts must have been used -- a view according to which, if attested behavior contradicts such texts, they must simply not have been used.And,
If Schopen's predecessors have taken it as [quoting Schopen] "axiomatic" that Buddhist texts unproblematically reflect Buddhist practice (and too often, no doubt, they have), Schopen almost seems to take it as axiomatic that, where texts and practice seem to disagree, there must simply have been no knowledge of the textual tradition. It seems to me that the more interesting possibility (and the one we are more entitled to entertain) is that both practices and texts coexisted, but that despite our sense of frequent contradiction between these, no cognitive dissonance was involved for Indian Buddhists. Perhaps, that is, it is only modern Buddhologists who have made the mistake of taking canonical texts as straightforwardly descriptive, with Indian Buddhist "doctrinal specialists" having recognized all along that that is not how such texts are used. And in fact, as Steven Collins has richly shown in his works, the canonical texts themselves frequently reflect something very much like such an awareness.And,
It seems to me that what is called for in light of Schopen's cogent and erudite work is not so much the conclusion that there is a sharp distinction between "what religious people actually did" and the texts favored by traditional philological scholars, but rather that being religious is a sufficiently complex affair that the same people who write (and use) scholastic texts might in fact be involved (and without experiencing any conflict) in practices that might seem to us to contradict such texts. What is called for, that is, is a richer theorization of the phenomena of "real religious people" and what they "actually did."Robert Wright, in his article on Christianity, gives utterly no credence to the possiblity that Christ or Paul were anything other than ambitious entrepreneurs of a religious franchise. Wright sees nothing in the way of soul or spirit in either.
Wright writes of Paul,
[T]he origins of Paul’s doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving-kindness, though for all we know he mustered much of that in the course of his life. The doctrine emerges from the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and his social environment.And further,
It may sound implausible that a doctrine of true, pure, boundless love could emerge from the strategic imperatives of entrepreneurship, even when the enterprise is a religion. And, actually, it is implausible. What emerged with early Christianity isn’t really what many Christians like to believe: a God of “universal” love. The core appeal of the early church, remember, was that “brotherly love” was a form of familial love. And familial love is discerning—it is directed inwardly, not outwardly; toward kin, not toward everyone.At the end of his piece, Wright reveals his thesis: "people are capable of expanding tolerance and understanding in response to facts on the ground; and even mandates from heaven can change in response." The science of self-interest leads morality around by its nose-ring. Flatland thinking, eh?
This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians. “Love one another with mutual affection,” he tells the Romans. “Through love become slaves to one another,” he instructs members of the Galatian congregation.
This isn’t to say that his preachings offer no foundation for a more truly universal love. He often exhorts Christians to extend hospitality to the unconverted, and sometimes he goes further. He tells the Thessalonians, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” Still, he isn’t in the habit of putting Christians and non-Christians on quite the same plane. He tells the
Galatians: “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the
family of faith.”
Paul is treading a fine line—occasionally urging a kind of “love” for non-Christians, yet suggesting that it be a less powerful motivator for generosity than the “brotherly love” he champions among Christians. Treading this line was a key to Christianity’s early success.
I don't know nearly enough about Schopen to pin Flatland Thinking to him, but I have to wonder if his insistant contrarianism is flavored by a failure to see by the Morning Star of higher consciousness.