Scott Cawelti Photo
  • On Suffering: An Exchange with Lynn Nielsen on Buddhism and Christianity

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2015
    My old friend and colleague Lynn Nielsen, who died of multiple myeloma in late April, took lunch with me every month or so for a good decade.  He was a Christian, a serious one.   I'm closer to Buddhism, and certainly far removed from his beliefs. 

    Nevertheless, we remained good friends, and spent many a happy hour over lunch pondering all sorts of issues from politics to religion--and never once getting upset about anything.  That's what made our friendship so special; it was based on mutual respect and appreciation.  

    On January 17, Saturday, we lunched as usual at Famous Dave's, drank our requisite two glasses of wine, and talked about the idea of suffering.  I put forth the idea that Buddhism dealt with human suffering in more depth and detail than Christianity--showing its followers how to live in a world that contains so much suffering, on so many levels.  I asserted that Christianity was less effective in helping its adherents deal with suffering.   

    Lynn didn't agree, but didn't say all that much until the next week, when he wrote a reply, to which I replied, and he replied again.  

    I just reread our triple exchange and thought I'd share it here, along with the last photo I took of him before he died.   

    FROM LYNN:  JAN 20 2015


    Good thought-provoking discussion last Saturday regarding suffering within the context of Christianity and Buddhism.  You asked for some kind of summary regarding my view of this question--what place does suffering hold in Judeo/Christian theology and practice.  

    As I thought more about this I came up with a series of familiar events or stories from the Bible (both OT and NT) that illustrate how suffering is central to the message of the Bible:

    • Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden for disobedience--Genesis 1-3
    • The world was destroyed while Noah and his family survived--Genesis
    • Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac only to have the Angel of the Lord intervene at the last minute--Genesis 12
    • Joseph was kidnapped and taken for dead only to become a Christ figure saving his family and friends from famine--Genesis 40-50
    • The Hebrews were held as slaves in Egypt for 400 years--Exodus 
    • The narrative of Job is entirely about why good people suffer--The book of Job
    • The Psalms are filled with pleas for deliverance from suffering
    • Central to the the Prophetic books are the two captivities (Assyrian and Persian) that destroyed much of the Jewish culture and traditions
    o Jesus came to suffer and die for the sins of the world.
    o Christians are called to suffer (though few of us really do very often).
    o Being a Christian is counter-cultural and thereby invites some suffering depending on the environment.  Identifying as a Christian in Iran clearly invites more suffering than identifying as a Christian in Nashville TN.  
    o Jesus was crucified for supporting counter-cultural concepts and beliefs.
    o Even after his death and resurrection, his followers were subject to the worst kind of persecution and social rejection.    
    None of this level of Biblical suffering should be confused with the kind of "suffering" that has lately become popular among right-wing, Fox-news-watchers.  For example, Duck Dynasty members do not get a pass because they reject homosexuals.  Christian business owners who refuse to serve homosexual clients and other marginalized populations do not receive the blessing of God even though many profit from these negative attitudes.  After all, bashing "fags" in America can be loads of fun.     

    Just my perspective,

    My reply on 1-25-15

    Hi--thanks for your reflection on suffering--have been pondering it off and on lately.  Thought I'd offer a few thoughts, just random and immediate.  

    The myths that Christianity sets forth are designed, from my perspective, to allay suffering, and work for its adherents pretty well. It offers the premises that suffering comes from a fall, and that God (who seems to think like a petty tyrant in the OT) in his anger at mankind's disobeying Him, cast mankind from paradise.  

    In that casting out, we suffered abandonment and must constantly seek to find ways back to God.  For Jews, this is an ongoing challenge and 
    problem, since there is no other answer than the seeking. 

    For Christians, who following the teachings of that greatest of all Jews, there's another answer:  Believe in Christ and all suffering is relieved--no need to do much more than that--and the joy lies in living forever in paradise with Him.    Not a bad deal.  

    That's the story, anyway, and if you can buy it, life's sufferings get considerably smaller.   It's called Faith, of course, aligned with Grace. 

    Now, for those of us who can't buy the story--just too obviously mythical in the sense of "false," there are other paths to relieving and understanding 
    suffering. I have found Buddhism is helpful especially in its emphasis on mindfulness and awareness--deep awareness of our true nature, which comes 
    during meditation, especially after long practice.  

    It involves recognition of our common "Buddha nature,' that we are all part of the same whole, that we all seek larger awareness of our loving nature, and suffering comes from our attachment to, well, everything.  Attachments are nothing more than illusions of permanance, and our need for permanence pervades our lives.

    Of course nothing is permanent--everything is in a constant state of flux, 
    and there's nothing to be done but live in the present, aware of the constant shifting going on everywhere at all times.  Underneath all that, of course, is our own awareness, the clarity that comes from realizing that our awareness does remain, recognizing that our thought-streams, while real to us, are not really true--merely illusions that we can choose to follow or not.  As Gandhi put it:  

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    That rings true to me—


    Lynn’s reply: 1-27-15  

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the response to my response.  I don't see Christianity and Buddhism to be competitors for the religious mind of modern thinkers to the extent you might.  The entire mystical wing of the Catholic Church for example, is built on very parallel premises.  As far back as Hildegarde of Bingen (and before) Christian mystics supported the concepts put forward by Ghandhi:

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    This is expressed somewhat in Romans 5:1-5 where Paul writes:
    Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

    Concerning the issue of "stories" from the Bible, most modern Biblical scholars readily accept the concept that stories carry multiple  purposes and often the question of "myth or not-myth" simply gets in the way of the message the story is designed to tell.  Deciding what is drawn from historical fact and what is simply mythological will in the end be an individual belief.  But simply because a particular part of a story reflects the "paranormal" does not mean it is categorically and "obviously mythological."  

    I have had almost no experience with paranormal phenomena but the little I have had strongly suggests there is indeed a "something other" that is beyond and bigger than me. 

    --Lynn Nielsen, Easter Sunday, 2015; two weeks before he died.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Religiosity
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Vacation Photos a Mixed Blessing

    • Posted on Jun 07, 2015
    Here's this morning's (6-7) Courier column.  I returned Tuesday from Europe with a suitcase full of dirty clothes, a healthy respect for jet travel, and 1,833 photos, mostly taken with my trusty Sony a77II--an amazing camera that never lets me down.  

    But--1,833 photos in ten days?  Isn't that a bit more like an obsessive need rather than a happy time off?  Well, yes, and I write about it here.  

    I do have powerful, lasting memories, but they all occurred when I put the camera away. 

    Still, a few of the photos came out well, and I will post a few  soon on this blog, as soon as I  choose and edit.   I hope to find maybe twenty really good ones.  

    Just returned from five days in London, followed by five more in Southern France.  We traveled with 35 local folks, visiting British and French museums, a fine French winery, as well as historic sites from Roman Baths to Stonehenge.   

     A nice mix of Dionysius and Apollo, as they say—with some days a bit more Dionysius, thanks to the celebratory nature of these bi-yearly May tours with Humble travel and Gary and Linda Kelley.     

    It was a magical trip, a highlight of the year.  At least.  

    I did return with a question, though, and it’s been on my mind for awhile:   
    Has vacation photography gotten out of control?  

     Stonehenge, that ancient monument to prehistoric builders that stands as an unexplained phenomenon, seemed inundated by paparazzi posing as tourists.  Virtually everyone (including me) was clicking away, taking hundreds of shots from every angle, almost afraid they would miss something if they stopped snapping.  

     Even as I was compulsively seeking the right angle and light for the best photo, I felt something was wrong.    

     In fact I was missing the actual experience of just being there, observing what was right in front of me.  My camera was doing the work of my brain.   

     Though it was fun and challenging playing with my camera, it was also turning Stonehenge into a two-dimensional experience. I was creating postcards rather than taking in the real thing.  

     Only when I put my camera away and we paused to really look did we create a genuine memory.  My wife and I stood quietly, absorbing the wonder and strange majesty of the prehistoric circular arrangement of stone monoliths.  I was finally awestruck, and it happened because I was camera-free.  

     Another morning we walked slowly and quietly through Westminster Abbey with no photography or cell phones allowed. Because the Abbey is a working church, both are forbidden.  

     This remarkable structure was built beginning in 960.  It serves as a record and centerpiece of an entire culture—a single site where most major events have been marked and celebrated.  

     A thousand years of vivid history are displayed here, with graves of kings, queens, prime ministers, artists, politicians, musicians, and writers, beginning with Chaucer, along with a large stone monument to Shakespeare.  

    You literally cannot leave the Abbey without passing the “Coronation Chair,” where every English monarch has been crowned since the beginning of the British empire.    

     I felt moved to tears, over and over, by the tombs, markers, sculptures, and inscriptions, including a large floor grave of an unknown WWI soldier—the only grave on whom it is forbidden to walk, and upon which heads of state from all over the world have placed wreaths. 

    Had I been snapping away, I would have missed the intensity and grandeur of that structure.   The entire morning moved me so deeply because the experience was direct, not interfered with by shutterbugging.  

     A few days later in France, a few of us were touring an old chapel that had been restored as part of a modern art museum near a small French walled city. Though photography was allowed, the little domed chapel seemed to invite quiet and contemplation.   

     Then a couple of us began singing, and stone structure resonated with harmonies almost from another world.  Probably it was due to overtones echoing from the hard stone, but we were all moved in ways that cannot be captured by photos or videos.  

     I came away from those ten days convinced that photography should not be excluded from vacations, but the best memories arise before or after cameras come out. 

     Wise travelers would do well to shut them off more often and absorb the three-dimensional wonders before them.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Travel
Contact Scott Header
Contact Scott Photo
Brothers Blood Book
James Hearst
Landscape Iowa CD