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God is not a Christian

The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia looks like a shiny cylindrical bunker that periscopes up over a small lush forest of Austrian pines, red cedars, and rhododendrons. Its exterior is clad in pre-weathered zinc panels that react chimerically to the constantly changing weather patterns of Vancouver, Canada. The structure imparts a sense of melancholy as befits its location, the wet, grey, moss-ridden environment of the Pacific Northwest. Inside is another matter. It is all blonde wood, architecturally exuberant, and its acoustics are celebrated as among the best in Canada. On this spring day in 2004, in cooperation with the university, it was incredible to have the use of this hall for one of the most seminal dialogues in recent memory. 

The Dalai Lama, wearing an orange baseball visor, was on stage sitting next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who had just flown in from South Africa. The Dalai Lama sat in his usual lotus position on a leather armchair that was a size too small for his folded legs. His knees stuck out a smidgeon beyond the armrests, his brown oxfords arranged neatly beneath his chair.

            “My main concern,” he said to Tutu. “What’s the best way to talk about deeper human values like love, compassion, forgiveness, these things. Not relying on God, but relying on ourselves.”

            Tutu was hunched forward in his chair; he was carefully examining his hands that were resting on his lap. He was dressed in a dark suit and a striking purple shirt with a decidedly magenta hue. A large metal cross hung below the clerical collar.

            The Dalai Lama said, “I myself, I’m believer, I’m Buddhist monk. So for my own improvement, I utilize as much as I can Buddhist approach. But I never touch this when I talk with others. Buddhism is my business. Not business of other people. Frankly speaking,” he stole a glance at the archbishop and declared firmly, “when you and our brothers and sisters talk about God, creator, I’m non-believer.” He laughed, perhaps a little self-consciously.

            It seemed to me that the Dalai Lama’s feelings about God have changed over the years. In an early interview, when I had asked him if he thought there is a God, he had answered simply, “I don’t know.” He took the view of an agnostic: he understood that it’s not possible to know one way or the other whether God exists or not.

            “In Buddhism no creator,” the Dalai Lama said at the Chan Centre. “But we also accept Buddha, bodhisattvas, these higher beings. However, if we only rely on these higher beings, we would just sit there, lazy.” He leaned into his chair, threw his head back and rolled his eyes heavenward.

            “Won’t help, won’t help. So that’s my view,” the Dalai Lama concluded.

            Tutu crossed his arms in front of his chest. He looked pensive, deep in thought. Then a smile creased his face.

            He said, “I was thinking when you were talking about God or no God, who you blame?” Tutu lifted both his legs from the floor and rocked back and forth in his chair. He was gripped in a paroxysm of uncontrollable mirth. Perhaps it was an inside joke. If so, I didn’t get it. Perhaps he meant that if there is no God, then there is no one to blame but ourselves?

Tutu stared at the Dalai Lama as his trademark giggle filled the hall. The Dalai Lama bowed deeply in homage; his head nearly level with his folded knees. He whipped off his baseball cap and saluted his South African friend with exaggerated flourish. Both men seemed to derive an enormous kick out of Tutu’s question.        

Tutu said nothing more for the longest time. He was gathering his thoughts in preparation to expound further on the subject. Although diminutive, all of five feet and four inches, he is still an imposing figure. His facial features are broad and remarkably plastic. But before Tutu could resume, the Dalai Lama pleaded, “I think…maybe I interfere. May I respond, just a little, just a little?”

            “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Tutu screeched in an extremely loud and high-pitched voice that took the audience in surprise. He turned completely sideways and trained his eyes onto the Dalai Lama, his face one of pure animation. The two elderly spiritual leaders, for one short unforgettable moment, became kids again, horsing around and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. At one gathering in Oslo, after a particularly rambunctious episode, Tutu admonished the Dalai Lama in mock seriousness, “Look here—the cameras are on you, stop behaving like a naughty school boy. Try to behave like a holy man.” 

The sold-out audience at the Chan Centre was clearly delighted with the bantering. It was heartening to see that these two global icons did not take themselves too seriously. That they, without being the least bit self-conscious, could display such childlike playfulness. We were all absorbing something of value just by being in their presence.

            The Dalai Lama was carried along by the archbishop’s animal vitality, his irreverence, his light-hearted theatrics. He was so in synchronicity with the African that he did something I have seldom seen before. He interrupted him, with no regard for niceties or etiquette, in mid-thought.

            But now that Tutu had given him permission to interrupt, the Dalai Lama turned serious. He said to the archbishop, “The problem is, if we involve religious faith, then there are many varieties, and fundamental differences of views. So very complicated.”

            “That’s why in India,” he pointed a finger at Tutu for emphasis, “when they drafted the constitution they deliberately used secular approach. Too many religions there—” he counted them out one by one with his fingers, “Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikkhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism. So many. And there are godly religions and there are godless religions. Who decides who is right?”

            Now that the Dalai Lama had his say about something he felt deeply, he put his orange baseball cap back on his bald pate.

            Tutu replied, “Let me just say that one of the things we need to establish is that—” long pause— “God is not a Christian….” He paused again and turned to look at the Dalai Lama with a mischievous glint in his eyes. It had the intended effect. The Tibetan leader roared with laughter. Apparently Tutu was not done with horsing around.

            “Are you feeling better?” Tutu asked the Dalai Lama who inclined his body far away from Tutu and covered his eyes in mock surrender.

            “We could go on but….” Tutu turned thoughtful. He enunciated his words with great care, and paused for a long time after each phrase. He picked up the Dalai Lama’s earlier thread, “The glory about God is that God is mystery. God is actually quite incredible in many ways. But God allows us to misunderstand her,…” at this the audience went wild; the applause was loud and spontaneous, “but also to understand her.”  

            “I frequently said I’m glad I’m not God,” Tutu continued. “But I’m also glad God is God. He can watch us speak, spread hatred, in his name. Apartheid was for a long time justified by the church. We do the same when we say all those awful things we say about gays and lesbians. We speak on behalf of a God of love.”

            “The God that I worship is an omnipotent God,” Tutu intoned as he opened his arms wide. He paused to let it sink in.

            Then he said sotto voce, “He is also incredibly totally impotent. The God that I worship is almighty, and also incredibly weak.”

            “He can sit there and watch me make a wrong choice. Now if I was God,” he said as the hall burst into laughter, “and I saw, for instance, this one is going to make a choice that is going to destroy his family, I’ll probably snuff him out.

            “But the glory of God is actually mind-blowing. He can sit and not intervene because he has such an incredible, incredible reverence for my autonomy. He is prepared to let me go to hell. Freely. Rather than compel me to go to heaven.

            “He weeps when he sees us do the things that we do to one another. But he does not send lightning bolts to destroy the ungodly. And that is fantastic. God says ‘I can’t force you. I beg you, please for your own sake, make the right choice. I beg you.’

            “When you do the right thing, God forgets about God’s divine dignity and he rushes and embraces you. ‘You came back, you came back. I love you. Oh how wonderful, you came back.’”

            There was total silence in the hall. Tutu’s speech was quite the tour de force. The audience was captivated by his infinitely malleable facial features which could change from fiery anger to deeply-felt compassion in a heartbeat. His voice scaled multiple octaves. His arms and hands were in perpetual motion. He was a showman and preacher par excellence.

            Tutu took a sip of water. He was done.

            On cue, Alexander Sanchez, a young man of 17 years, walked up to the stage and stood behind the podium. He was a Grade 12 student in a local high school and he had been selected to ask a question of the archbishop.

“First of all, I like the visor,” he said to the Dalai Lama. “Orange suits you, man.” The Tibetan was confused – the young man spoke a little too fast for him. His translator helpfully told him, “He liked your visor.”

            Sanchez addressed Tutu, “In school we read books and newspapers about all the bloodshed in Africa, about the conflicts between black and white. How do you settle disputes without taking away people’s free will to choose forgiveness?”

            Tutu put one palm up to his ear; he too seemed to have difficulty following the question. The Chan Centre has great acoustics for music but it seemed to have challenges with the spoken word. Instead of waiting for Sanchez to repeat his question, the archbishop got out of his chair and walked up to him. They shook hands. Then Tutu raised both his palms and instructed, “High five.” Sanchez was delighted to oblige. He put an arm around the archbishop and repeated his question.

            “I think that many times people are more moved by example,” Tutu replied after he went back to his chair. “Especially examples of people who having suffered a great deal, instead of demanding the pound of flesh in retribution, they have been extraordinary.

            “There have been many moments in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A young black woman came to us and told this story, ‘The police came and took me to the police station. They put me in a room, undressed me. They took my breasts and they shoved them into a drawer. And then they’d slam the drawer several times on my nipples until the white stuff ooze.’

            “Now you imagine that someone who has experienced this kind of atrocity would be bitter, would lust after revenge. But frequently people like her would say they were ready to forgive. The perpetrators, not always but many times, would be touched by this compassion. You can’t compel someone to confess and be penitent. But you see, the thing we are talking about here, that it isn’t something that goes in the head. We are touched, we are touched, in other parts of our being. In the heart, in the feeling in the tummy. And often you see people break down and cry.”

            Sanchez stood rock-still behind the podium. His face was devoid of expression. Then he walked slowly down the steps and left the stage without a word, stunned by the enormity of what he had just heard

            Later that day Tutu and the Dalai Lama came together again in a small function room at the Chan Centre. They had another opportunity to expand on their views on religion before Tutu had to leave Vancouver.

            “I think generally all religious traditions have, I think, good potential to improve human condition,” the Dalai Lama said to the archbishop. “However, some followers of religions, they are not very serious about one’s own teaching. They -- out of selfishness, money, or power -- use religion for personal gain. In some cases, because they completely isolated, so no idea about other traditions, value of other traditions. So that creates religious disharmony. But I think if you make balance, I think more weight to positive side than negative. Much, much more.”

            “Yes, you are right,” Tutu replied. “And you have to remember that religion is of itself neither good nor bad. Christianity has produced the Ku Klux Clan. Christianity has produced those who killed doctors that perform abortions. Religion is a morally neutral thing. It is what you do with it. It is like a knife, a knife is good when you use it for cutting up bread for sandwiches. A knife is bad when you stick it in somebody’s gut. Religion is good when it produces a Dalai Lama, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King.”

            “And a Bishop Tutu,” the Dalai Lama interjected.

            Tutu stared at him, stuck a finger at his own chest, and admonished, “I’m talking!”

            The Dalai Lama leaned back in playful recoil and laughed uproariously.

            “But we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t say…” Tutu ignored him and continued. But the Dalai Lama had trouble concentrating. His chest was heaving, his shoulders were jiggling with involuntary convulsions; he was having a hard time controlling his laugher. “Because there are bad Muslims, therefore Islam is a bad religion. Because there are bad Buddhists, Buddhism is bad. Just look at the Buddhist dictators in Burma,” Tutu said. “We’ve got to say, what does your faith make you do? Make you become? I would not have survived without the faith of knowing that this is God’s world and that God is in charge, that evil is not going to prevail despite all appearance to the contrary. Yes, of course, sometimes, you want to whisper in God’s ear. God, for goodness’ sake, we know that you are in charge, but why don’t you make this more obvious?”

The Dalai Lama was not laughing any longer. He listened intently to the words of the Archbishop who expressed a sentiment the Dalai Lama himself has often voiced.