We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, May 6, 2013

Tasting Enlightenment

Hebrews 6:4-5 in The Kingdom New Testament, N. T. Wright has the text state: "For once people have been enlightened—when they've tasted the heavenly gift and have had a share in the holy spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the power over the coming age—".  In the NRSV, the same text reads: "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come."
n his translation of

While in the NRSV and other translations seem to present a list of cognate experiences that include enlightenment along with tasting "the heavenly gift" and so on, Wright renders these two verses in a way that turns them into a description of Christian enlightenment.  That is, one who is enlightened is one who has tasted the heavenly gift, the word of God, power over the coming age, and has also had a share in the Holy Spirit.  Let's stick with Wright's rendering for a moment and see where it takes us.

One thought that comes to mind immediately is that in Christianity we don't talk about "enlightenment" that much.  Our thing is salvation.  It may well be, however, that these are two words describing the same thing.  Certainly in Buddhist circles enlightenment is the path to salvation if not salvation itself.

Furthermore, whereas enlightenment is generally thought of as seeing more deeply into the true nature of reality, Hebrews changes the metaphor for enlightenment from sight to taste.  We don't see more deeply but taste more richly (sweetly?), and where enlightenment generally is a matter of looking deeply within ourselves in Hebrews 6:4-5 it is more about experiencing something outside of ourselves.  It is a gift—to mix metaphors.  Enlightenment is thus external to us.  It is received and experienced.  We may infer that enlightenment is God's gracious gift given to those who are receptive to it.  Enlightenment is not insight but, according to the impressively long list of synonyms for "taste," it can imply discernment, perception, and even knowledge—so that, in a way, seeing enlightenment and tasting it are not so very different even if the metaphors imagine different senses.

So, the key question is the source of enlightenment.  In Buddhism, it is something we gain for ourselves by looking more deeply into the nature of reality.  In Hebrews, it is a gift that allows us to discern more fully the nature of reality and especially the nature of the Giver.  God is the source and object of enlightenment.  While Christian imperialists will insist that there is "obviously" a radical difference in these two forms of enlightenment, it is not clear that they are correct.  Each, for example, sets us on a path away from self and in search of ultimate truths that reveal realities very different from what we see and taste superficially.  Each is counter-intuitive.  Each grows out of the discovery of quiet and deep reflection.  In Buddhism, enlightenment is not something to be achieved but is attained only as one puts aside such things as achievements.  So, in a sense, it comes as a gift—one that does not come from one's self after all because "self" does not even exist.

The thing that matters in the end is the search itself.  Enlightenment whether Christian or Buddhist is a precious gift.  It sets us on the path of our salvation.  Amen.