Bodhisattva Vows as Liberation Theology

I was raised in what I consider to have been a very “liberal” Catholic household. Outside our evening “grace” before dinner and weekly church service, God and religion were rarely discussed. When I was of confirmation age, I was given the option to go forward or not. I chose not.

Fast-forward through the nearly 25 years of religious exploration that led me to Buddhism, I was met with the question this week about which, if any, version of God most resonated with me. This was part of a Unitarian Universalist group that my partner and I attend, which aims to foster explorations of faith, or non-faith, and community.

The options were drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition: stern father, caring shepherd, voice in the whirlwind, etc. But they went further to include more abstract notions such as a simple “higher power” or the God of Liberation Theology, wherein the divine sides with the poor and oppressed, calling us to work for peace and justice so that all beings can reach their own potential.

Other options were given as well: the atheist, agnostic, and humanist visions of a perhaps non-existent God: all of which I have espoused at one time or another in my life.

But I was struck with the words around the Liberation Theology vision of the divine.

I am not new to the term, but I also have not explored it in great depth. It calls to mind valiant Catholic priests and nuns standing up for the indigenous people of South America against white colonialist oppressors. But the heroes and heroines of Liberation Theology do not fall off my tongue.

Nonetheless, here, in this moment, the words “peace” and “all beings” jumped, as if from the page.

I thought of the Bodhisattva Vow: “Beings are uncountable, I vow to save them all.” And I thought of a quote that has been with me continuously for the last year, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This comes from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but what most people don’t know is that Dr. King was paraphrasing Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who lived the 19th century and wrote of the “arc of the moral universe” in relation to the ongoing struggle to end slavery in the United States of America.

These three notions, that of Liberation Theology, the Bodhisattva Vow, and the long arc of the moral universe, all dance together. Each has in it an idea that the modern anti-metaphysician might find preposterous: a “moral” universe, a “divine” working through us, and the conceit that any being can save all others. But each of these can be taken as an exhortation to try: to expand our sphere of contact with the world to a point of sublime exhaustion. What is exhausted is nothing other than the “ego,” the limiting factor separating us from others. And isn’t that, just that, the core of the heart of awakening, bodhicitta?

Language has a way of bedeviling us. I know I still have somewhat allergic reactions to theological terms connected with my youth. But at the heart of them might lie points of contact, areas of the heart beyond description, beyond words. And perhaps that is where we: Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, meet.

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