Introduction: Authority in Buddhism and Christianity

By Harris, Elizabeth | Buddhist-Christian Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Authority in Buddhism and Christianity


Harris, Elizabeth, Buddhist-Christian Studies


This issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies contains the papers (1) presented at the conference of the European Network of Buddhist Christian Studies, held in June 2009 at the Benedictine Archabbey of St. Ottilien near Munich on the theme "Authority in Buddhism and Christianity." (2)

The European Network of Buddhist Christian Studies grew from a conference convened by the Rev. Gerhard Koberlin at the Academy of Mission in Hamburg in 1996, which drew together Christians involved in the academic study of Buddhism. The next conference, held at the Archabbey of St. Ottilien, attracted Buddhist participants also. It was at this point that the current name of the network was adopted. The aims of the network are to promote within Buddhist-Christian relations mutual understanding and dialogue, academic study, and practical cooperation and friendship. The network's main activity is a biennial academic conference on a theme important to the development of Buddhist-Christian relations. Conference themes have included "Buddhist Perceptions of Jesus"; "Christian Perceptions of the Buddha"; "Buddhism, Christianity and Creation"; "Conversion and Religious Identity in Buddhism and Christianity"; and "Buddhist Attitudes to Other Religions." (3) Invited presentations on selected aspects of the chosen theme, each of which is addressed by a Buddhist and a Christian, form the core of each conference. The papers from the "Authority" conference follow the same pattern.

The theme of authority was chosen because of its central significance in the contemporary world, not only to religious traditions but also to secular society. When, as the current President of the network, I gave an introduction to the theme of authority in Buddhism and Christianity on the first evening, I began with secular society and the play Waiting for Godot. (4) Written by the English playwright Samuel Beckett, it was first performed in 1955. Many viewers were mystified by it because there was so little action. The play focuses on Vladimir and Estragon, two elderly men, dressed in ragged clothes, who talk together in a nondescript place, close to a tree. They are waiting for Godot, a shadowy figure of hope or authority, with whom they believe they have an appointment. Godot never comes, although a boy comes on stage to say that Godot will definitely come the next day. Behind the conversation lies the threat of punishment: "And they didn't beat you?" Vladimir asks Estragon at the beginning. "Certainly they beat me!" Estragon replies. The agents of this never appear and are never defined.

The play is shot through with religious imagery, but it is twisted and distorted, placed within a barren landscape, in which the two men create a world for themselves through words. The lack or failure of any authority is a central theme of the play. Believing they have an appointment with "authority," the men are unable to move or use self-directed agency. I compared this with the figure of authority in Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. At the beginning, what is named "The Authority" by "religious" leaders appears anything but shadowy. It is magisterial and Godlike, and inspires powerful institutions. In the end, however, this Authority is revealed as a thing of shadows--a pitiful, terrified, wizened old man. Pullman describes him as "demented and powerless," weeping, mumbling in fear and pain and misery. (5) He is as light as paper and has no will of his own. When he is taken out of his cage, the wind takes him and he disintegrates with an expression of profound relief on his face.

Waiting for Godot and His Dark Materials give expression to the crisis of authority in our postmodern world, the first theme that the conference and this volume explores. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, authority is first and foremost the power or right to enforce obedience. That any being, institution, or set of beliefs should have that power, however, is being called into question throughout the world. …

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