The Buddhist in your foxhole

UnclesamwantsyouRemember what I said about guilt? Well, this next post falls into that category. It's about Thomas Dyer, the Army's first Buddhist chaplain. (This isn't that surprising. When I profiled an Army chaplain back in 2005, I learned that of the 1,400 active-duty chaplains, only nine were Jewish, six Muslim and six Orthodox Christian.) The Memphis Commercial Appeal offers a fascinating newsmaker profile that opens with Dyer's conversion:

For Thomas Dyer, there was fire and brimstone. "There was the idea that there's an angry God and somehow you could really make Him mad."

Dyer grew up fearing God. He was a Cumberland Presbyterian, then a Baptist. He had hoped religious conviction would lead to contentment. He attended seminary and preached as a Southern Baptist minister.

That seems like a lifetime ago as Dyer, 43, sits on a cushion in the shrine room of the Pema Karpo Meditation Center in Raleigh. Six statues of various Buddhas are positioned against the walls. His teacher, a Tibetan monk who founded the temple, listens as Dyer explains his exodus from the pulpit in search of nirvana.

"The question that arose in my mind is, 'Why is there so much suffering?' Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer. I wanted to be happy. The idea that we have to live with suffering until we die just did not make sense to me -- the idea that God wants you to suffer so you can then enjoy heaven." Dyer kept asking, "Is this all there is to life?"

What follows is a descriptive journey through Dyer's religious past and present. The prose is rich, and there are plenty of great details about Buddhism:

He has left his boots at the door of the temple, but in the temple room he wears a standard Army camouflage uniform. Instead of a cross or crucifix on the right chest his uniform bears the "dharma wheel" insignia as a symbol of the Buddhist faith.

But, in a feature that is neither long nor short, the issue of unresolved theodicy is, well, unresolved. It's left out like spoiled meat, casting a foul odor over the religion of Dyer's foolish childhood.

Reader MJBubba, who brought the story to our attention, had this reaction:

The Commercial Appeal has run a few articles and opinion pieces each year that say Christianity has no answer. The fact that the majority of the Christian philosophers have addressed the issue with a very good answer that is borne out in the way the world works and provides hope and comfort to the grieving and hurting has not appeared in this paper that I can recall. We do get a steady diet of universalism in our local paper. No wonder so many people are confused. The paper seems to have an editorial position of wanting to chisel away at orthodox Christian faith. This article just fits into a longstanding pattern.

I can't answer that. Discussing theodicy in a news article is like bringing up predestination in a college Bible study. It's a difficult, tricky subject, and it can seriously distract the audience. And the reporter may have just thought it was better to pretend the elephant wasn't there than to ask it to leave. If so, I'd advise against such an approach.

As for the Commercial Appeal, I'm not a regular reader. In fact, with special offense to my friend D Madd, I can't stand Memphis. Sorry, Beale Street, but it's a John Calipari thing.

But what I do know is that, building on the Commercial Appeal's story, Bob Smietana of the Tennessean delivered longer feature much more likely to make your GetReligionistas happy. (And you know that's what every member of the MSM strives to do.)

Smietana thinks big picture and looks at what Dyer's deployment will mean at a time when the "military chaplaincy is facing all the complications that have affected American religion over the past 40 years." He talks about the chaplaincy's makeup, its requirements and responsibilities and its strict though not strictly followed prohibition on "the E-word." That is the strength of this story.

But, and possibly because this story appears to have been enterprised from Commercial Appeal's Dyer profile, the Buddhist chaplain is really just used for bookends. Dyer fills the first three paragraphs and the final four, and Smietana gets him to talk about how he will minister to soldiers who aren't Buddhist. (I'm not sure how many Buddhists are in the Army; I've always thought of them as pacifists, even in Tibet, but that's not really explored in either article.) This isn't bad. It was just a bit disappointing.

Clearly both articles were written to serve different functions. They actually would have been great to run side by side -- possibly even with the addition of a sidebar about theodicy. But three articles about the military chaplaincy? Talk about a prayer.

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