MWP 1.3.c The Middle Way in Christianity and Islam

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If the Middle Way is a general theory, available in universal experience as far as we can tell, as I propose, then it would not be at all surprising to find it implicitly in other contexts than the Buddhist tradition, even though it seems that it is there that it has been tackled most explicitly. In fact, wherever human beings have been able to theorise on the basis of experience it would be surprising not to find some evidence of implicit models of the Middle Way. We have already discussed ancient Greek Pyrrhonism, which in many ways has an explicit version of the Middle Way, and in discussing the relationship between the Middle Way and objectivity in 3.e below I will be suggesting ways in which the Middle Way can be implicitly found in modern scientific method. There is also a case, which I will discuss in volume 5, for seeing implicit aspects of the Middle Way in the development of Western democracy.

This means that we would also expect to find implicit signs of the Middle Way in religious traditions such as Christianity and Islam. I have already indicated that I do not accept the assumption that religions are wholly defined by their metaphysical beliefs. Religions include a wide range of practices, stories, symbols and communities that may to some extent reinforce metaphysical beliefs, but in other respects reflect more exploratory and provisional beliefs. Even in the case of religious symbols that seem on the surface to only represent metaphysical claims, we have to bear in mind that the meaning of these symbols is not merely representational. God, for example, can in some ways represent a metaphysical claim, but in others a mere recognition of conditions that lie beyond the control of people (as in ‘an act of God’) or in Jungian analysis an archetype of integration (see discussion of archetypes in volume 3). A belief in the existence of God is to some extent separable from the meaning of God – a distinction that we sometimes glimpse when atheists admit to enjoying hymn-singing, or when Christian mystics with a close experiential relationship to God appear agnostic about his existence.

I am going to quite briefly suggest ways in which I see the Middle Way reflected in Christianity and Islam respectively. The main point of doing this is to drive home the idea of the universality of the Middle Way and its lack of necessary relationship to its explicit formulation in Buddhism. It is not intended to involve any claims that these are the ‘true’ or ‘essential’ interpretations of these religions, or that there are not huge metaphysical forces also present in both religions. However, I do think that religions are human institutions that can be steered in the direction that humans wish to steer them.

In Christianity, mediation between the ideal and the real is a central theme surrounding the incarnation of Jesus. Whilst God the Father represents a perfection which was unattainably set in the Jewish law, human sinfulness and inability to live up to this ideal (often represented by Adam) is the opposing pole of denial. Jesus as a symbolic figure can be seen as mediating these polarities by combining human and divine elements in one frame, encouraging Christians to maintain awareness of both human and divine in tension. At least some of his teachings, such as those about love, the avoidance of hypocrisy and a flexible attitude to rules (see 7.f) can be interpreted as helping with the practice of the Middle Way, so as to maintain the inspiration of the ideal whilst fully recognising the conditions of the real. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection can also offer a potential Middle Way symbology to relate to human experience. In the crucifixion, the reality of suffering and our passive inability to change evil appears to triumph, but then in the resurrection, the optimistic triumph of ideals over conditions is again asserted beyond hope. The Middle Way here involves holding both crucifixion and resurrection in tension – facing up to conditions but at the same time allowing ideals to inspire us in not being limited by those conditions.

In Islam, too, there is a tension between the ideals of the divine and the reality of the human, with a rigorous attempt to bring the whole of society into line with an ideal (for example with prayer five times daily) balanced by legal principles that make some allowances for human limitations, such as the principle that hardship should not be unnecessarily inflicted (As it says in the Qur’an Sura 185, “Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship”).

In Islam, too, the principle of shirk, sometimes translated as idolatry, offers a basis for criticism of metaphysics. Shirk means the association of things that are not God with God, and derives in turn from tawhid, the prime principle of Islam, that ‘there is no God but God’, i.e. we should not confuse other things with God, or reduce the transcendent to the worldly[1]. Applied consistently, this should mean that all attempts to attribute the perfection of God or the authority of his will to human utterances are, in a sense, blasphemous. By claiming to know about God, let alone claiming to know revelation, we make an important mistake. Instead, if we recognise the limitations of our humanity and seek God incrementally through addressing conditions, we might actually encounter the meaning of God as it relates to human experience. Shirk could certainly be interpreted in a way that prohibits metaphysics by respecting the unknowability of the transcendent. However, just as Buddhists need to face up to an inconsistency between the Middle Way and their metaphysical doctrines such as karma, so do Muslims need to face up to the inconsistency between Shirk and the belief that the Qur’an is revelatory.


[1] For a helpful discussion of Tawhid and Shirk, see Murata & Chittick (1994) pp 47-52

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