The Non-Theistic Approach to Theology

by Venerable Thom Kilts, Plainviews, Nov 5, 2008

Venerable Thom Kilts on theos as an undefined mystery

Denver, CO (USA) -- There can be much tension over the term "theology" for fellow Buddhists because Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.

What that means exactly will vary with each different denomination, but what is agreed upon most directly is that we do not believe in a Creator G_d. Theology has been traditionally understood as the study of "God", which is quite limiting and in my opinion quite misleading.

I have come to believe that the original Greek word, theos, had a different intention than what has been set forth by monotheistic faiths. I prefer to see theos as that which is the undefined mystery of the cosmos and theology as the study of the meaning of this undefined mystery according to one’s specific faith tradition.

The contribution of a non-theistic approach to theology is that it emphasizes more the "experiential" aspect of the study of theos. The Buddha told his disciples to not believe anything, even if he has said it, unless it conforms to one’s own experience. My understanding of the theistic approach is that it emphasizes faith before experience, whereas the non-theistic approach emphasizes the development of faith through experience. I would never believe or state that the non-theistic approach works for everybody, because it doesn’t. I want to lift up the more important point, which is, that it is an "approach" to the study of theology.

The non-theistic approach also challenges the G_d assumption so prevalent in our society, our seminaries and beyond. What I call the G_d assumption is the unquestioned notion that when G-d is entered into "religious" conversation, the underlying assumption is that we all agree what G_d is and that it exists at all. I think to have someone in the conversation who questions one’s understanding of G_d in general, creates much needed tension and a demand for deeper thought and scrutiny in this increasingly secular world. As a non-theist in my CPE training, I was put under great scrutiny to define my understanding of G_d as I worked with patients. I don’t think that high level of scrutiny should be limited to just non-theistic students.

I believe the theistic approach to theology, that posits that there is a G_d, is one facet of approaching and developing one’s religious formation, but not the only one. Both theistic and non-theistic approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once stated, "…both theism and non-theism can be problematic if you are not involving yourself personally and fully." To me, the emphasis for both non-theists and theists should be one’s compassionate actions in the world. In some ways the tension between theists and non-theists mirrors what Anton Boisen was upsetting in the traditional academic seminaries of his times; by differentiating the actual experience of learning from "living human documents," from the academic study of pastoral care in the classroom. Fellow Buddhists should be proud of our approach to "theology" and should not shy away from the term.

Venerable Thom Kilts is the Director of Spiritual Care at John Muir Medical Center-Concord Campus. Thom has degrees in Cultural Anthropology/Religious Studies, as well as a graduate degree in Buddhist Studies from Naropa University. He is a Dharma Teacher in the Nyingmapa School of Vajrayana Buddhism and is ordained as a Celtic Buddhist Lineage Holder. Thom lives in California with his wife and daughter and composes songs for and plays in the band, Diablo’s Dust.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: