To cling or not to cling?
Our Denver Brew Theology community is currently spending two weeks tackling the topic, American Buddha: How America is Buddhist Country, and it’s simply quite fascinating on so many levels.
My friend, Liz Wolfert, identifies as a Buddhist and she wrote the following excerpt regarding the movie, Birdman.
Birdman: Written and directed by Alejandro Iñárritu and starring Michael Keaton and Emma Stone, this artsy-fartsy, non-linear movie involves a former action-movie star Riggan Thomson who is staring and directing in a Broadway production of Raymond Carter’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The movie’s plot is almost entirely driven along the twists and turns of Riggan’s obsessive inner world, most poignantly symbolized by a dominating Birdman figure of his imagination. His ego-focus is so strong, he can barely connect with the three-dimensional presence of the three most important people in his life: his girlfriend, his ex-wife, and his daughter. In fact, in the movie, some characters disappear entirely once he stops considering them. The movie closes with the spectacular resolution of all of the fictional worlds Riggan inhabits: the play within a movie, his difficult and delusional inner life, and the world outside all come crashing together to become one and the same, and reveal themselves to be as plain as the nose (or lack of nose) on Riggan’s face.
What would the Buddha say? Riggan tries to transcend his suffering by unskillfully intensifying his obsession about himself: his creative vision, his perceived former glory, his quest for “self-improvement” through meditation, etc. Riggan only achieves liberation when he crashes through the barriers of his “ego” or the inner world he’s built up for himself (symbolized by the theater building where the movie and play takes place) to touch the “world as it exists” outside of himself.
As a Christian I notice many commonalities between the Buddhist faith and Christian teachings: nonviolence, meditation, seeking peace/ shalom, serving the marginalized, and as seen in the movie Birdman, the ongoing effort of dying to self. Jesus speaks of picking up one’s cross and losing one’s life to find it, while the Buddha teaches practitioners to transcend suffering by not clinging to the temporal, which ends up owning the self-inner being. Essentially, the Buddha and the Christ teach and embody liberation!
I recently read Dr. John Cobb’s latest book, Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed, and the following statement struck a chord anew the other night as we were chatting up Buddhism at the brewery: “The question for Christians is whether faith really involves attachment and clinging. It is certainly often described in these terms, but we may be able to learn something from Buddhists here. Perhaps really to trust God is not to cling to him but to be free to let go; perhaps clinging is an expression of limited faith.” Clinging, at first glance, does not seem that bad. In many ways we – Christians – were taught to “cling” to God and Jesus as the “author and perfecter of our faith.”
Children cling to their parents, but eventually in order to function properly in society, they move on... And nobody enjoys a clingy partner. Just say no to Stage 5 clingers! Likewise, perhaps raw, tried and true faith does actually require us to “let go” since faith is best translated as faithfulness rather than intellectual “belief.” And when we emphasize the latter, we can create problems of being “right” rather than living “right.” We know that when we cling to anything, whether it be the nostalgia of the past and trying to recreate it or an addictive substance, a crappy habit or relationship, this clinging provides dire results. Perhaps even clinging to Jesus can lead us toward bad religion, masquerading a mascot idol that simply tells us - followers - to “let go.”
Before you think this idea is either unbiblical or theologically incorrect, let’s unpack this a bit more using scripture and then ask some questions that may help move toward a greater awakening toward liberation.
According to the Gospel of John, one of the occurrences that happened after the resurrection speaks of Mary Magdalene encountering her old Rabbi in a state of shock and wild emotion. Mary clings to Jesus. She doesn’t want to let go. It makes perfect sense. Imagine losing your spouse, significant other, best friend, child or parent. Many of us have dealt with sudden or tragic death, and it’s painstakingly miserable. Letting go of a loved one is unnervingly shitty! And while there are many stages of grief, and in some ways it’s nearly impossible to plainly “let go,” we – humans – do need to move on, get up in the morning, eat, sleep, pay the bills and simply do this thing called life. So, when Mary sees Jesus after having experienced his tragic crucifixion, she doesn’t want to lose him again.
I can imagine the difficulty, especially when Jesus tells her to let go and go….
Mary, stop clinging!
What? Why would her best friend say that? Doesn’t that seem a bit insensitive? Perhaps, but it was the ongoing good message that paved the way for people to walk in this new kind of kingdom, not the way of the kingdoms of the world, which are built upon clinging. This resurrection story is bigger than just Jesus, himself. It’s about the ongoing resurrection story that Jesus had been teaching his followers from the beginning of his ministry. It’s about shedding old layers, finding the new self, getting rid of old wineskins for the new wine to thrive, and reminding ourselves to not sew a new patch on an old garment. Why? Well, because the tear in the garment will worsen and the wine in the wineskin will burst! The resurrection story echoes these old teachings. In hindsight, it all becomes a bit more clear… and it's all about clinging.
Jesus told his disciples the same thing about leaving the world at the last supper after he washed their feet and broke bread. He told his boys that they would do greater things than him, and he was moving on… If he didn’t move on, and if they just relied on him in the flesh, they would never be able to do those “greater things.” If you look back at other instances throughout the Gospel stories you see Jesus healing people followed with the words, “Don’t tell anyone!” In fact, he became so popular (because we – humans – love to create demigods and superheroes and world rulers – to “save us” from A., B. or C.) that when the crowds wanted to make him king, he again slipped away from the crowds. For being such a big deal, Jesus didn’t have room for a popularity contest. He didn’t need to share his #’s or W column. Jesus was not insecure, and he knew what would happen if he became an idol, so to speak. I’d argue that he clearly abhorred the celebrity status. Full circle: Lose your life to find it. Jesus literally picked up his cross, and showed the world a new way of life completely different from the status quo.
Similar to the Buddha, the Christ not only taught his disciples to stop clinging, he fully embodied it.
So, as those who profess a faith in Christ, and more specifically, seek after the same faithfulness of Christ, we must ask ourselves the question, if Jesus tells Mary and others to “let go” of him, what does the mean today in the 21st Century?
How have we created an idol, or worse, a mascot of Christ?
What kinds of uber-religious clinging throughout Christian history can we unequivoclaly say butchered people's faith rather than built upon good faithfulness?
Does a death-grip-clinging to Jesus actually kill real faith?
What does it mean to find liberation through a faithfulness that looks like the life of Christ rather than putting Jesus on a bad celebrity pedestal?
There was a way of viewing God at one point, and the clinging of that particular way had to die in order to find a new way, and so on… We – humans – love old customs, traditions and ways of thinking that help us sleep better at night. We enjoy patterns of clinging, and we love creating God in our image. We’ll do whatever it takes to never leave these "holy" places like that of Peter, James and John (after the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain), and we will persistenly want to build shrines and stay in these "sacred" places while neglecting the new sacred right in front of us… Perhaps Christians should better hear the words of Christ, “Stop clinging. Time to go.”
This is the story of death/ crucifixion and resurrection/ liberation. This is the cycle of letting go. Perhaps John Cobb is dead right, and clinging is an expression of limited faith. But I’d rather not be certain and cling to that conclusion…
What do you think?