Ways and means, in religion

2017/10/10

I’m reading Zen and the Bible, a book written by a Japanese Jesuit priest, J. K. Kadowaki, about how practicing Zen improved his Christian spiritual life. In the preface, he explains that the impetus for the book was “the Catholic theological Professor J. Ratzinger (now a cardinal)” telling him to “compare the ideas of Zen with those of the Bible” as a way to improve “the dialogue between Zen and Christianity” as well as “the ideological exchange between East and West”. Sometime after the book was published, Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

The thing that has struck me most in this book is Kadowaki’s distinction between a “way” and “means”. He notes that, in typical Christian spirituality, the body is used as a means to execute the decisions arrived at by reason: “The way of Western Christianity is to overcome disturbing passions through reason and volition: by self-examination one becomes aware of self-love and self-centeredness and then tries to change by means of the will.” He goes on to discuss “the important distinction between a means and a way”:

A means is considered good if it is effective in achieving an end, and bad if it is not. It has no value of itself; its worth is decided in relation to the end. […] the physical body cannot be thought of as a means for the soul. […] Christianity [does not] look down on the body; to consider the body as a means is not the true thought of the Church. By imperceptible degrees, however, stress has been placed more and more on the superiority of the soul, so that the mistaken notion of the body as a means has at time crept into Christian thinking. And with the added contamination of modern rationalism, even religion has come to be used by some as a utilitarian means to an end.

He continues:

This is by no means happening only in the West: the same thing is also blatantly being done in Japan. A typical example is the way Japanese New Religions effectively use promises of worldly gain or the cure of illness as a means of propagating the faith.

I was so struck by this because of two experiences I’ve had, spaced by many years. The first was in high school when a friend of mine who was a devoted Christian asserted that Christianity had merit, in part, because it was a “healthy” way of life. Not lying, drinking, or having promiscuous sex was good for your health, he asserted. I was immediately reminded of 1 Corinthians 6:13, where the apostle Paul chides the Christians in Corinth for saying that “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” (“Food” and “stomach” are metaphors for sexual activity and sexual desire. Paul responds by saying that “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”)

The second experience was the slow realization that Judaism doesn’t have an afterlife or “heaven” like the Christianity in which I was raised, and I was confused to learn that the Bible doesn’t talk about heaven in the sense that I learned about it as a child, as a place that, if you do things right in this life, you’ll be rewarded with an afterlife of pure bliss.

The point of these two experiences was that practicing religion for a purpose seemed to miss the point. The Christianity in which I was raised emphasized a transaction—do these things and get heaven—and my friend proposed another, more down-to-earth transaction—do these things and live longer. The Jews had a totally different attitude: you do stuff because it is the right thing to do, not because you get anything for it.

Kadowaki gave me language for this distinction. I think he’s trying to make the point that doing something as a means to something else is a great way to run a business, “[y]et this philosophy can never solve man’s fundamental problems. That is to say, it is impossible to deal with the relations between parent and child, brother and sister, friend and friend, or teacher and student, in terms of means to an end.”

I’ve found his language useful for a related point. As Kadowaki says, thinking about means and ends is a bad way to run your spiritual life. (Indeed, meditating as a means of gaining enlightenment is considered one of the sure-fire ways to waste your time and definitely not achieve enlightenment.) I’m saying that it seems like thinking of religion itself as a means seems mistaken. I always thought that a god cruel enough to punish beings for eternity would not fail to detect whether someone had made Pascal’s wager.