THE GREAT HESITATION
It is said that when the Buddha achieved enlightenment he hesitated. Was what he had experienced uniquely personal, unintelligible to anyone else, or was it something that could be shared with others, that had some content? Eventually he decided that he couldn’t just keep it to himself and so he started teaching, which is why we know about Buddhism.
Buddhist scholars have debated the significance of the Great Hesitation, as it is known, ever since and in great detail. As we know too well, it’s very easy to become transfixed by the minutiae of religious argument and to miss the main point. The Great Hesitation suggests to me something profoundly important about the nature of religion and, indeed, about political and social debate more generally. Is the way to salvation just a private affair, which you have to achieve under your own steam; or is it something you are told about and sign up for?
We seem to live in a world where it’s much easier to communicate with people but, ironically, much harder to have a proper conversation with them about the things that matter, because we lack a shared starting-point. The risk is that therefore this gives space for two kinds of infallibility to flourish. One is the infallibility of the individual. My experience, my outlook on life, is the norm and everyone else needs to conform to it. The other kind of infallibility is that of the system or organisation which imposes its authority, whether that is a church, a political party, or a government.
Both of these stances express an important truth. Any system, religious or otherwise, needs to be able to mark its boundaries and continue itself in time. And it is important that individuals have the freedom to respond to what is on offer and to make sense of it for themselves. It is perhaps the genius of the Anglican way that it holds a mutually creative balance between the system and the individual.
Yet it is perilously easy for that balance to be disrupted, as some of the discussions in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are warning us. ‘Look before you think’, the philosopher Wittgenstein used to say. Maybe the story of the Great Hesitation can help us engage more creatively and productively with each other.
The Venerable Dr Christopher Cunliffe
Archdeacon of Derby