copyright Robert M. Ellis 2009 

The Middle Way and religion

The Middle Way involves the avoidance of metaphysical beliefs, including belief (or disbelief) in the existence of God. Even the Buddhist belief in the enlightenment of the Buddha and other figures is a metaphysical belief which needs to be similarly avoided. However, it would be wrong on this account to write off the world's religions as playing no part in the Middle Way. Religions offer a rich source of spiritual practices and potent symbols. The very idea of "not being religious" is a peculiar, and recent, Western invention, a bit like claiming not to be historical or not to be psychological. Religion is a dimension of human experience which goes far beyond formal adherence to metaphysical beliefs. It is time to free religion from its association with "faith".

As with any metaphysical belief, in encountering religious beliefs we need to ask ourselves what insights relating to human experience they are actually attempting to communicate. The more thoughtful amongst religious "believers" obviously find something satisfying in their allegiance which relates profoundly to their experience, and therefore their religion cannot simply be rejected wholesale because of its crude expression in metaphysical terms. Practitioners of the Middle Way might conceivably be practising any religion or none, but they will be united by a genuine pragmatism and a lightness of touch in their use of religious ideas.

I therefore invite practitioners of all religions and philosophies - Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, utilitarians, humanists, Marxists and others - to join me in practising the Middle Way. The Middle Way always starts where you start, with addressing the conditions you find yourself in. For most people those conditions include a large portion of religious, or possibly anti-religious, conditioning. Moving outwards from those conditions towards greater objectivity might mean changing or discarding allegiances, or it might mean staying with the same one: for what defines that movement as objective is not the type of metaphysical assumptions you are working with, but how you treat them. Whatever the beliefs you may gravitate towards, at the root of a Middle Way response is the recognition that you do not know. You do not know anything about God, especially whether he exists or not.  Nor do you know anything about enlightenment or about ultimate material conditions. It is in the openness of this realisation, sliding into a space between affirmation and denial, that not only truth but inspiration lies. In the openness of relying on our experience lies not just "truth" insofar as we can grasp it, but also emotional adjustment adequate to our conditions.

This is not facile universalism. Religions do not all offer equal degrees of justification, and if anything their "beliefs" compete with each other in delusoriness. Nevertheless, religious traditions all offer symbols, practices and communities which help to make billions of people's lives secure and meaningful. All religions are not one, but most religions can be, to some extent, useful to human beings in gaining objectivity, provided that we do not accept them on their own terms as "faiths". 

My own experience of religion begins with a liberal Christian background, with its belief in God that I first decisively rejected at the age of nine, but have at various times since made unsuccessful attempts to engage with. Having failed to accept the language of even the most liberal forms of Christianity, I spent about 20 years attempting, with varying degrees of effort, to be a Buddhist. I am still committed to what I see as the universal insights to be found in Buddhism, but after nearly four years as a member of the Western Buddhist Order (again, about as liberal as you can get in Buddhist circles), I resigned and gave up the struggle to reconcile Buddhism's persistent metaphysical commitments with its practical insights. I thought for a while that I could participate in the reform of Buddhism towards a genuinely universal movement, rather than one bound to tradition as at present. I would still encourage others to engage with that task, both in Buddhism and in other religious traditions such as Christianity. However, I personally do not have enough cultural engagement with Buddhism to be able to engage with that task. After twenty years of trying to engage with Western Buddhism, I remain culturally a Christian. The art, music, stories and even rituals of Christianity mean a lot more to me than those of Buddhism. Much of the symbolism which for some people may give emotional bite to Buddhism still seems to me like a tiresome and superfluous accretion, distracting people from the central ideas and practices that could help them. My impression is that there are also many other Western Buddhists whose experience of Buddhism is deracinated, and who will never really feel culturally at home there.

I am sure that it is possible to be a Christian and a practitioner of the Middle Way, though from the outside I may be underestimating the difficulties. The central symbol of Christianity, of the incarnation of Jesus, is built on a tension that the early church creatively refused to resolve, between the divinity and the humanity of Christ. One way of usefully interpreting that tension so as to relate to our experience is as the tension between ideals and conditions. We are imperfect but we have ideals of perfection which we fail to measure up to. Staying in the openness of that tension, without a premature belief that it is resolved, must be one way of adopting Jesus as a central symbol of one's life, without "believing" in him. We need to experience for ourselves the full force of the ideal expectations that Christians identify with God the father, together with the full recognition of our imperfect, flawed humanity that Christians identify with Jesus at his most human. The crucifixion then becomes a powerful symbol of human suffering in our imperfect lives, and the resurrection a symbol of the hope we can always salvage from suffering.

Another aspect of Buddhism which I always found off-putting and out of harmony with the Middle Way, was a widespread pessimism about Western civilisation and a tendency to downplay or ignore its positive achievements. The achievements of Western science, technology, medicine, education, democracy and human rights have only been made by addressing conditions that Buddhist cultures never got round to addressing unaided. By this practical test, it may well be that a broadly Christian culture, in one way or another, has been able to follow the Middle Way better than Buddhist culture, even whilst Buddhism offers useful practices that support the individual in following the Middle Way that Christianity lacks. There are ironies here that those in both traditions need to engage with.

Nor should one rule out the possibility of practising Islam in accordance with the Middle Way, however narrow many interpretations of Islam today appear to be. In Islam, also, a balance needs to be struck between the ideals represented by Allah and the worldly limitations of the Muslim, which at root involves the Middle Way. The transmutation of narrow metaphysical beliefs in Islam into ones only grounded in experience is, however, an enormous task.

My good wishes go out to all who are attempting to practise any religion in accordance with the Middle Way, and I wish them courage in their defiance of dogma.

Links to further discussion

The Buddhist origins of the Middle Way

The Middle Way and God

Should Western Buddhists be Christians? (a paper)

Section on Christianity in thesis (includes discussion of Old Testament Law, Jesus, Paul, Constantine, and various aspects of Christian history including the relationship with capitalism)

Return to Middle Way Philosophy home page


Quick links to other pages related to religion





Buddhism & Christianity

Why Christianity is eternalist