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.