August 01, 2005

Regarding Devout People From Other Religions

Question:
A big point of confusion for me, maybe especially 'cos my mother's Indian, is the question about saints from other countries. I've read many books about eastern religion and spirituality and about their saints and yogis. These people were amazingly dedicated pursuers of God. They spent their lives dedicated to God/the spiritual path, and have all sorts of stories about actual communion and visions and all. Should I not believe them? Were they sent to hell? What about the Buddha? I'd find it hard to believe that: a) there have been no true followers of God from non-Christian areas, and b) that all of those people were lying or deluded. Also, some of them have had visions of Christ and quote heavily from the Bible too. Hmm.

Answer:
Here's where you have your chance at some "scientific" thinking about religious matters, as I mentioned in question one. You've already got a start in the way you imply that if these other devout persons are in good with God, then something must be wrong with Christianity and its exclusivism. Jesus can't be the only path and Hinduism (et al.) be "a way" too. Something's got to give if you want to think rationally, and I think you do. But this brings up one of the first problems with the eastern religions. It is common to characterize this present world as "illusion" and to include rational thought as part of that clinging world that is to be escaped. If you will join those mystics that believe we must rise "above" logic and rational though, then there are no contradictions to be raised against Christianity or any other belief systems for that matter. But if you will stay the path of reason, then you must be skeptical of any religion or worldview that would seek to destroy it.

If we can use logic to sort through the religions, then we might say that if one religion were true, and it taught specific truths about God, then any religion that taught contradictory things must be false (at least regarding those particular teachings). For example, if religion A teaches reincarnation and religion B says we live just one life, then if A is true, B is necessarily false. Or if religion A says that God is a single, personal being that transcends the created world, and religion B says that God is impersonal and IS the world, then whichever idea is true rules out the other one. Of course, in each of these cases both A and B could be false, but with certain opposing truth claims (like the examples given) they cannot both coexist in a rational universe.

I think you'd like to preserve both the eastern religions and Christianity in your spiritual model. It's so hard to think of "nice" and "devout" people as being deluded or condemned, and "who are we to judge" such things anyway. But if thinking is profitable and logic is a valid tool, then there is some sifting we can do among the world religions without being "judgmental" or "bigoted." And if there is a God who has made us and wants to be known, then it makes perfect sense for us to do so and to be equipped by Him for the task.

From an earlier email you said this: "I believe that God takes on many different forms in order to communicate with people, because who can just stare into infinity?" I don't think it is warranted to say that God IS many different contradictory things. If He is something at all, then He is something particular. (Note: I use "He" for God for lack of a better pronoun, and because the Bible indicates this as His own pronoun of choice.) There may be many layers of depth and many characteristics about Him, but these things can surely be known if He wills them to be, however incompletely. For example, God might reveal that He is personal or that He is the creator of the universe. Now, we may not fully understand the depths of His "personhood" or the scope of the creation (and what lies beyond it), but for Him to also reveal that He is impersonal and IS THE creation would be confounding and would essentially mean that He has revealed nothing at all about these things. How would it be helpful to us to communicate Himself in contradictory ways?

The problem with these other religions is that if we tried to put these different understandings together to get a picture of God, then we get nothing but chaos. If God were an elephant and each religion were describing a separate part of Him (as in the Hindu parable), then perhaps we could get an overall picture of Him. The problem is, each religion is not describing a different part; they are differently describing many of the same parts! If we adopt religious pluralism, we must imagine God to be an amorphous monster. And if the "elephant" talks (as Christianity claims) and it says that it has two tusks of bone, then any blind men feeling about it who say they are "spears," or that there is only one tusk, are necessarily mistaken, and they compound their error by refusing to heed the words of the elephant.

When you say that all these people are serving and experiencing "God" we must consider the possibility that it is not God at all that they are focused upon. God is not simply a word for which we are free to supply any definition we want. If someone claims to be devoted to God, but then they give a description of Him that is complete nonsense, then what is it that they are worshipping? Is God just looking for "sincere" people and doesn't care about what they throw their sincerity at? Even "devotion" and "worship" are specific attitudes and activities that can be misdefined. Do you suppose that God was pleased with the child sacrifices of the Canaanites simply because they were sincerely dedicated to their religion?

I know, I know, it's got to be "good" and sincere. But what if God would rather have people participate in the good of their neighbor and a "devout" person just wasted all his time privately meditating? Does that qualify as "good?" What if God would rather be treated in a personal manner and a "devout" person just spent all his time babbling repetitive prayers and performing mechanical rituals? Is that "good?" Was it "good" for Buddha to abandon his wife and son if God expects us to be responsible to our family? Is it "good" for Hindus to ignore the misery of the untouchable caste, because of their alleged karmic debt, if reincarnation and the law of karma is actually a fiction?

Worst of all, what if people know deep down in their minds and hearts (because it has been put there) that there is a creator to whom they are indebted for absolutely everything they are, have, and enjoy, yet they refuse to give Him honor and thanksgiving in favor of worshipping the creation or some "god" of their own design? And what if they constantly violate His moral law, which is also "written on their hearts," yet they minimize this fact or try to bury their misdeeds under rituals or good works according to their own standard of "goodness?" If there really is a God who is worthy of worship and obedience, then how "dedicated" to Him was the Buddha, who fled the life and reality that God had prescribed, went on a vision quest, and dredged up a new metaphysical model from his own imagination that ultimately denied the world, moral reality, heaven, and God Himself? Just how is one following a true spiritual path to the true God if one's path is claiming to lead to no God at all but, instead, soul extinction, as Theravada Buddhism (the oldest, most orthodox form) claims to believe?

Regarding the "communion and visions" of these people from eastern religions, I would say that subjective experiences are a problematic basis for defining spiritual truth for two reasons.

1) Every religion claims "experiences" of one kind or another, from the Mormon "burning in the bosom," to the New Age psychic encounter, to the "kundalini awakening" of the transcendentalist, to the Marian visions of the Catholic, to the visions of the gods for the Hindu. The problem is that each of the religions interprets these to their own ends, and the experiences always seem to dovetail with whatever path the person already happens to be on. If they are meant to validate the religion, then we have the problem I address above: each religion makes unique and irreconcilable claims about God and the creation. How, then, can they all confirm their host's religion? The best they could do is to evidence that there is some spiritual aspect to the cosmos, or at least to human imagination.

2) Where these experiences and visions do give specific information, beyond simple "feelings," it does not follow that it is always true information. For example, if the Hindu believes he sees a vision of Shiva, or the New Ager thinks he is channeling an "ascended master," it may be that these things are not really what they are imagined to be. These may happen to be authentic experiences, but there still could be some mistake about their source or intent. Furthermore, if these are truly "beings" that they are seeing or communicating with, there is no reason to think that all such beings are any more honest than human beings. And if there are intelligent and powerful spiritual beings of evil intent, we could expect them to be at least as effective at deception as the most successful human con artist.

All these experiences found in the world's religions do not succeed in invalidating Christianity. The only way this would be so is if the Bible claimed that spirits and visions only appeared to the authentic Christian. On the contrary, our scriptures are quick to make the point that the spirit world is exceedingly active in the affairs of humanity, but that we happen to now reside in enemy territory. The Truth and Light revealed to us by God is brought forth by a conquering army led by its invincible yet patient champion. The diverse and often contradictory spiritual manifestations from all these religious traditions are easily explained within the Christian worldview, which says that "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light." And he and his minions are not so much interested in weaving one, unified and comprehensive truth-substitute as they are in using any means at their disposal to deflect attention from THE Truth. It is not God who "takes on many different forms in order to communicate"; it is the one who does not want us to communicate with the One form.

You say that some of these have had visions of Christ and quote from the Bible. It is interesting how all the world's religions attempt to get Jesus playing for their team. I've not known a religion or cult yet that tries to make Jesus out to be a hack or a charlatan. Christianity itself doesn't try to appeal to any other spiritual leaders; it suffers no peers, which I'm sure seems arrogant to many, but is at least consistent with its claim to be sponsored by the one true God, who does not take kindly to pretenders or muddled-headed thinking about Himself. The only reasons I can see for another religion to appeal to Jesus is if they are trying to gain credibility for themselves or simply to win converts away from Christianity. Christianity doesn't take well to being re-purposed to these other religions, unless you first tear it down and rebuild it to suit your purposes.

It is really meaningless to say that someone quotes the Bible. I've heard atheists quote the Bible and claim that it contains good moral teachings. The Bible is a big book and it says many things that are peripheral to the core Christian doctrines that may be leveraged for any number of uses. The main questions are, what these people think they are quoting (God's word or man's musings about God), and how much of the Bible they would actually be comfortable quoting? It is one thing to quote a verse like, "blessed are the peace-makers"; it is entirely different to quote verses like the following:
  • "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."
  • "There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
  • "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God."
  • "As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
For those having visions of Christ I must ask what difference it made. Have they then sought out the Bible, which is the primary historical documentation about this Being, or do they simply shrug it off as an affirmation that Jesus is giving them the thumbs up in their present non-Christian faith? And, according to my comments above, I must ask how they know that it is Jesus in the first place? If He is not there to scold them for chasing after false Gods and to call them to follow His path, then it is surely not the Jesus of the Bible!

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2 Comments:

At 8/15/2005 8:18 PM, Blogger Vman said...

I used to be a Hindu. I know for a fact that many Hindus preached that all gods Jesus, Allah, Vishnu etc. were all the same and that differnet religions were just different paths to one god. New wave christians are beginning to suggest that what matters is faith and devotion not religion. I find Hinduism ridiculous though. I can't pass judgement on islam since I haven't read to Koran. The bible seems to full of myths and stories.

 
At 8/15/2005 10:02 PM, Blogger Paul said...

The only way you can make these "gods" the same is to redefine them according to Hindu standards. In other words, what each religion claims God to be is a fiction and only Hinduism is correct. That is, of course, unless you can reconcile God being incarnate and not incarnate, personal and non-personal, of the world and outside the world, concerned with sin and ambivelant toward sin. I don't know about you, but I consider myself a rational person.

How can you separate faith and devotion out of the equation and make it the whole point? Faith in what and devotion to whom? What these people are saying is that it doesn't matter what you believe, it's just acting religious that's important (e.g., candles, chanting, meditating, etc. -- whatever trips your trigger).

As far as the "myths" in the Bible, I must point out that where Scripture can be subjected to archaeological scrutiny it has fared well. It is really the miraculous things in Scripture that give people heartburn. But this is begging the question to say that you would more likely believe it if there were no miracles. Since it claims to be about God's activities, there is no surprise in finding the kinds of miracles in it which one might demand as proof of God's involvement. One interesting thing about the Qur'an is that it makes grandious claims about God and Muhammad being his main-man, but it is curiously devoid of miracles. Tell me, does this make you more or less inclined to see Muhammad as the "last and greatest" prophet of God?

 

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