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What to Make of Brother David Steindl-Rast?

Brother David Steindl-Rast Brother David Steindl-Rast

We have received a question from a reader about a Benedictine monk known as David Steindl-Rast whose books, which are being read by family members, appear to mix Buddhism and Catholicism. What is the best way to defend against these writings?

First of all, there is a popular misconception that Buddhism is somehow “non-religious” and therefore can be practiced by people of any faith. This is not correct. Buddhism may have some teachings that agree with Christianity such as some of the ethical teachings, but there are deep divides between the fundamental beliefs of Buddhists and those of Christians.

For instance, Buddhists do not believe in the existence of the soul. They believe people who think they have a soul are rooted in ignorance and in a desire to please one’s “self” and that we become truly enlightened only after we come to the realization that there is no such thing as a soul. In fact, Buddhists are not concerned with the existence of God at all but instead seek after the "non-self". This blog explains more.

As for Steindl-Rast, this Austrian-born monk who emigrated to the United States in 1952 became deeply involved in the post-Vatican II interfaith dialogue. At one point, he served (with Vatican approval) in Buddhist-Christian dialogue at the request of the abbot of a newly founded Benedictine community in Elmira, New York where he was a member.

In 1968, he co-founded the Center for Spiritual Studies with Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi teachers.

A prolific writer and speaker, he has authored numerous books including A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness, Belonging to the Universe: Explorations on the Frontiers of Science and Spirituality, and The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian.

His work has been criticized as being syncretistic, such as by the author of this article which appears on the EWTN website.

“For Steindl-Rast, the content of ‘Religion’ is revealed through ‘our peak experiences," writes Fr. Bernard D. Green. "There ‘we discover...what we mean by God, if we want to use that term. We experience that we belong to God. Our true self is the divine self’.”

Green goes on to say that since the authentic content of Religion can be read off from that common experience, the various religions are – according to Steindl-Rast – essentially compatible.

“Hence, for Steindl-Rast, it is possible to have a baptismal ceremony which is totally Buddhist and totally Christian. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity adds anything distinctive to the ceremony. The rite is able to express <a prioi> commonality of meaning, which was there before the two ‘religions’ were formed. Thus, syncretism assumes common content and, on that basis, is open to incorporating beliefs and practices from any and every spiritual tradition.”

These views are obviously problematic.

Steindl-Rast is also very involved in the network for grateful living which also blends a variety of beliefs, including what appears to be earth worship as well as Buddhist-style meditation techniques.

Catholics, particularly those who are not well-versed in world religions and Christian theology should avoid the writings of Steindl-Rast whose syncretistic blending of various beliefs is certain to cause confusion and misunderstanding.