For several years, and in different locations, I’ve tried to call attention to the “indefinite malleability of doctrine.” This is not unrelated to my concern that doctrine is still far over-emphasized in the academic study of religions, and the study of Buddhism. However, my concern here is a more practical one, that is, personal actions, usually referred to as morals. The common presumption is that there is some kind of linear, direct, logically causal (not materially causal) sequence from values to decision-making to action, that is, that one’s values determine the decisions one makes, and consequently the actions one takes. (This is one expression of the broader and fallacious understanding that conscious thought is determinative of action: the intellectualist fallacy. I suspect that the problem is the linearity of this conception.)
A further presumption is that religious doctrine is the appropriate source of values. If you doubt this consider the widespread notion that atheists are necessarily immoral, because religious belief is the source of morality. This is itself in turn part of a larger conception that religion is primarily about maintaining the order and organization required for civilization (see Charles Taylor, Secular Age).
It seems as if many people think that religious doctrine is an established reference point that can be consulted for moral guidance. I can for example recall a long series of discussions in the Buddhist Churches of America’s lay leadership regarding the possibility if producing a series of brochures on contemporary issues—The Jodo Shinshu position on: death penalty, abortion, women’s rights, etc. The idea seemed to have been that it would be a relatively simple and straight-forward process: someone (or some committee) should be able to just look at Jodo Shinshu doctrine, establish what position the entire denomination should hold, and then write up an exposition in less than 1,000 words, to be printed up in a brochure and distributed throughout the sangha. This well-intentioned proposal seemed to have been part of a project of playing catch-up with the way other churches in the US were seen as propagating a shared identity based on adherence to a credal positioning.
There are two closely related problems with this conception, however.
1) Doctrine itself is not stable and unchanging.
This is the kind of claim that once expressed some might assert to be obvious and trivial—something everyone learns in their introduction to world religions class. Just as with the some of the historiography of philosophy, religious studies (perhaps especially in its introductory forms) engages in the same kind of essentializing of different traditions according to doctrinal claims (for philosophy, see earlier post on the Hegelian historiography of philosophy). The pedagogic habit of reducing different traditions to doctrinal formulae obscures the instability of doctrine.
At the same time, some traditions promote themselves as expressions of a timeless, eternal order. For example, consider some responses, such as Ross Douthat’s (NY Times, 17 Oct. 2015), to current discussions within the Catholic tradition regarding a variety of moral issues (one wonders why so many of these have to do with sex, anyway?). The argument Douthat makes is that the doctrinal bases of the church have endured for millennia, and will withstand the current round of chasing after relevance in the shallows of societal fashions. Such rhetoric, however, is not based in a history of unchanging doctrinal fidelity to eternal truth, but is instead part of conservative propaganda, and should be seen as an instance of discursive claims to authority intended to silence criticism and stifle independent reflection. Rather than an adherence to the eternal truths of tradition, conservatives employ that language to maintain a particular socio-economic order (see the work of Corey Robin).
To bring this closer to home, we can consider an example drawn from traditional Buddhist cosmology. While, for example, the six realms of rebirth (in the kamaloka) has been widely accepted over the course of Buddhist history, nobody I know today who self-identifies as a Buddhist also believes in the literal existence of the six realms—though I certainly leave open the possibility of Buddhist fundamentalists who do. (The distinction made by some between “traditional and secular” Buddhists can be safely ignored in this regard—that is itself part of an apologetic.) It seems to this observer that the most common interpretation in contemporary Buddhism—one that I have myself found workable—is understanding the six realms as representations of different mental states, that is, a psychologizing interpretation compatible with contemporary therapeutic culture. (As comfortable as this is, I’d hardly want to claim that this is “the best” interpretation.)
2) Doctrine can be (easily) reinterpreted in support of views and values already held for other reasons.
A classic example is the issue of slavery prior to the American Civil War. Christian doctrines were interpreted both to support abolition and to support slave holding. Same God, same Bible, same Jesus—diametrically opposed views on slavery, apparently not depending on doctrine, but rather largely on the economics of those supporting the church. Southern slave owners wanted to hear that they were doing the right thing, while those in the North whose livelihood was more dependent on either freehold farms or autonomous labor did not need a theology that supported slavery, but rather one more focused on individual freedoms. This, of course, like way way oversimplifies a much more complex reality. But in broad terms, consider for example that the division of the Baptist tradition into northern and southern conventions in 1845 was exactly over the issue of slavery.
Closer to home, today we find the doctrine of karma being deployed in support of the alleviation of suffering (now widely and uncritically accepted as the sine qua non of Buddhism)—in some version or other the claim is made that it is our karmic and moral duty (the two being seen as identical) to relieve the suffering of others. (This is perhaps better seen as a Buddhicized version of the late 19th century liberal Protestant Social Gospel.)
At some times in Buddhist history, however, the doctrine of karma was given as a rationale for not relieving the suffering of others, such as, lepers and outcasts. The suffering of their current life was interpreted as a consequence of actions taken in past lives. It was necessary for them to endure their current suffering in order to finally deplete their reserves of accumulated bad karma, and for anyone to relieve some of their suffering in the present would only prolong their suffering in the future. Same doctrine, karma, opposite understandings of its meaning for morality. (Wow, upon reflection that sounds very like conservative responses to the ongoing economic crisis, and note that the suffering is always somebody else’s.)
Far from being a reliable guide to action because of its immutability, doctrine is indefinitely malleable. It can be deployed and reinterpreted in any number of different forms, and the claim that it is a guide to action because it is unchanging is itself a power-oriented claim to authority.