In relation to a project on the topic of “Buddhist theology” I was fortunate enough to come across an article by James L. Fredericks, “A Universal Religious Experience?: Comparative Theology as an Alternative to a Theology of Religions” (Horizons 22/1, 1995, 67–87). Fredericks provides a very valuable summary of the background to many of the ideas that inform popular Buddhism in the West today. In reflecting on the developments that continue to come forth, it is important for those involved to be aware not only of the history of Buddhist thought, but also the history of Western religious and philosophical thought, as the latter is often simply taken for granted as if they were simply true. If one is to evaluate the contemporary value of Buddhist teachings, one needs to be self-reflectively aware of the sources of one’s own preconceptions so as to be able to evaluate those as well. Do you actually want to think that way? (This is particularly important for any self-consciously dialogical projects.) Only by understanding the historical context out of which the ideas that currently go unquestioned originated can one gain an additional degree of freedom.
In the last year of the eighteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher published the first of two influential works, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. The second, The Christian Faith [Glaubenslehre], published twenty-two years later, seems to have been of more focused influence within theology per se, but On Religion was intended for a much wider audience, an audience that Fredericks describes as “Berlin’s free-thinkers and bohemians” (71). In this project, Schleiermacher seems to have been more successful than even he might have hoped, since his formulation has structured the representation of Buddhism in our own present day.
Schleiermacher’s goal is in complete accord with much of contemporary modernist rhetoric produced by Buddhist “post-traditionalists” who correspond to the “free-thinkers and bohemians” of Schleiermacher’s Berlin. His intent, according to Fredericks, was “to show that Berlin’s free-thinkers and bohemians could despise dogmatism and clericalism without necessarily rejecting religion itself” (71). Against what do contemporary Buddhist post-traditionalists react? What they perceive as the dogmatic character of Buddhist teachings and the structures and authority of Buddhist institutions, i.e., clericalism. What do they hope—and indeed claim—to have discovered/created in its place? That which is “religion itself”—the true essence of the teachings, the original Dharma, whatever—within what is characterized as the decadent and ossified traditionalism of all of the Buddhist tradition before them, except for the pure teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, or whatever other founding figure they happen to like, and can re-imagine as a radical reformer in the same mold as they claim for themselves.
“Post-traditionalists” might object that while the goal may be similar, certainly they have found some novel means for its attainment. The means, however, is no more novel than the goal. Schleiermacher’s great transformation of theology is to shift the very definition of religion from emphases on doctrine and institution (dogma and authority) to experience, “what Schleiermacher in the Speeches called the ‘sense of the Infinite'” (70). Such an experience is preverbal (in the philosophic terminology of the day: prior to the structuring of consciousness by the categories identified by Kant), and therefore ineffable and completely private. “This claim allows Schleiermacher to arrive at two conclusions: (1) this experience is one of sheer immediacy which is only later sundered by thought, and (2) this experience ultimately defies final description and definition and is thus knowable only by direct personal acquaintance” (70). As such it cannot be talked about, except indirectly, and only those who are themselves already acquainted with the experience can appreciate its importance and value: “if the reader should be religiously ungifted, then there is no basis for further discussion” (72). These conceptions are the ground for claims that religion, defined as religious experience, is irreducible to other factors, such as social history or economics, and arises solely from itself (the sui generis claim). Since such a hypothetical experience is preverbal, it is also not subject to evaluation. Being a direct experience of reality just as it is, it is self-authenticating. In other words, there is no way that reasoned, reflective thought can be applied to the claims made on the basis of “religious experience.” And anyone who can claim access to such “religious experience” becomes equally an authoritative teacher. (Nota bene: if in attempting to discuss such matters one says, Yes, I’ve had such experiences, so I can engage you, one has already accepted the fundamental and unarguable basis of the position. The claim is, in Popper’s now quaint but effective epistemological distinction, unfalsifiable.)
Fredericks suggests that the claim of a preverbal experience as the basis and true essence of religion is the core of what came to be called Liberal Theology (69, n.2), which served to make this conception of religion as religious experience widely influential throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, right into the present. These ideas permeated not just theology, but were also taken up by philosophers in hermeneutics and philosophy of language, historians of religion, and psychologists of religion (for specifics, see 71). The influence has become so pervasive that this image of religious experience has become “common sense” about what religion really is, and therefore what Buddhism ought to be.
While there are other aspects of “post-traditionalist” Buddhist rhetoric, such as the equations made between Buddhism and science, the focus on the irrefutable status of individual, private, preverbal experience remains a strong component. On what grounds for example is the authority of some particular set of teachings rejected? Most frequently by reference to the critic’s own unique experience, an experience that is presumed despite its private status to be of greater relevance to others in the present than the heritage of teachings. In other cases, it may be the critic’s own moral sensibility, which is presented as equally grounded in individual, private experience, now promoted as universally valid, that is offered as the basis for critique.
Far from being “post-traditional,” much of what is being promoted as novel is highly traditional—only the tradition that is being uncritically repeated is that of nineteenth century Liberal Theology, and not any form of Buddhism not itself already modernized by adoption of the tenet of “religious experience.”