August 25, 2005

The Universist Movement: Lost in the Fog and Lovin' It

When one rejects the idea that there is a God who is concerned with the beliefs and behaviors of humans, and who has certainly not granted any knowledge of Himself via Special Revelation, then one is free to go about one's business as though He did not even exist. But what is one then to do about that nagging feeling in the "soul" that finds awe in the creation and cries out for meaning, value, purpose, and answers to life's great mysteries? How do we foster hope, peace, and ethical standards for all mankind? Well, according to the founders of the Universist Movement, you make up your own religion. All Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, Pantheists, and Transcendentalists welcome. Those with knowledge or convictions about God need not apply.

For those not yet familiar with this new and growing religion, formed by a group of medical students out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, here are some choice excerpts from their official website along with some of my comments.
The Universist Alternative can be summarized in one statement:

Universists apply personal reason and experience to the fundamental questions of human existence, derive inspiration from the natural uncertainty of the human state, and deny the validity of revelation, faith and dogma.
My "reason" informs me that the case for Christianity is solid and that all attempted counter-arguments against the resurrection testimonies fall short unless one first presupposes that miracles cannot occur. My "experience" tells me that Christianity resonates with my deepest intuitions about the world and human nature. I could be wrong, but you'd have to give me good "reasons" to change my mind.
Universism is the world's first rational religion. Reaching to the heart of humanity's religious impulse, we have uncovered not faith, but mystery. Not complacency, but awe. We have found an essential element of the human experience in harmony with reason - not in spite of it. Universists know the fuller our understanding of the universe, the greater our appreciation for a reality beyond our imagination. We celebrate individual reason, inspiration in nature, and hope in progress.

For many, Universism is a way for atheists to pine for something beyond ourselves, to celebrate the wonder of the Universe... but still be atheist.
Of course, it would be "unreasonable" to assume that this "religious impulse" has anything to do with the possibility that a God actually exists and has seeded us with the desire to seek after Him. No, this must be an evolutionary vestige. A most unfortunate mutation in that there is no selective advantage in whiling away your time shaping idols and attending to endless rituals while your competition gathers their food and sharpens their flint.
Universists share the following five principles:

I. The most important thing is the search for meaning and purpose, as in relationships and love, understanding and knowledge, experiences and emotions, or elsewhere.
"Searching" is good, but finding is prohibited (more on this later).
II. There is no absolute Truth that applies to all people; ultimate knowledge of the nature of existence cannot be communicated, it can only be reasoned or experienced personally. The natural state of most individuals is uncertainty, motivating curiosity, openmindedness and appreciation for the experiences and thought of other beings.
This has the unmistakable smell of a truth claim. In fact, there's quite a bit of metaphysical groundwork lain by them in order to define what is and is not a Universist — "doctrine," if you will. Additionally, this claim of the "natural state" of individuals being "uncertainty" seems to fly in the face of their concession that humanity has a "religious impulse." This impulse seems to express itself globally in religions that are incorrigibly dogmatic, which is the very thing they are seeking to flee with their own dogma.
III. Morality depends on individual circumstances and relationships. Any action's ultimate rightness or wrongness can only be determined by those involved in the action. Good and Evil are ideas that can be useful, but are inaccurate if used to describe the nature of the universe.
Of course they are moral relativists; they must be without either a God to ground morality or without revelation to assist in determining what the standards might be. I wonder, though, do they believe that when I disagree with them about their ethical standards or seek to impose mine upon society that I am "wrong" or doing something "bad?" Their materials are filled with moral judgments against the intolerance of traditional religions and the perceived harms that it has done to society. They are certainly free to propose whatever organization or story that they like, but they overstep their philosophy if they propose that it is a "better" way than mine. Better according to what measure?
IV. Social structures such as governments and institutions are useful insofar as they help individuals to flourish - that is, become and remain healthy, happy and able to work toward their goals that do not interfere with the rights of other individuals to work toward their goals.
"Rights?" What the heck are rights and where did they get them? According to their ideology, rights can be only what the state grants you, since there is no Author of rights or no rights gene. But this makes no sense, because they are suggesting that government's role should be to foster the preservation of these rights. This implies that they believe that rights are objective entities that transcend temporal governments. Unfortunately, this smacks of a theistic worldview, which is tacitly rejected by this group (Deism is the nearest thing they will countenance according to their literature). This means that "rights" are merely those things which they have predetermined that they desire to possess. More power to them in lobbying the state for whatever rights they deem desirable, but they are certainly not rationally justified in claiming to have a "right" to such "rights."
V. All life is free in the universe, limited in potential only by the physical laws of nature.
If not for those pesky physical laws then our selves would be free to ascend to the very heavens (a godless one, of course). In reality, though, the entire concept of "freedom" is problematic for most of those who would be drawn to this religion. If we are merely citizens and material of the universe, then we are subject to the laws and forces which drive that universe. This article of faith, according to their model, might justifiably then read, "All life is determined, driven and limited by our biology and environment." But that wouldn't make a very "inspirational" creed, now would it?
We wanted to fix what was wrong with [traditional religion] by determining why it failed, in order to make a satisfying replacement for faith. Our conclusion was that the opposite of faith, Uncertainty itself, is the only satisfying antidote, and only when it is fully embraced and celebrated for its contribution to our daily lives and human progress as a whole.

Universism is the method, the primacy of the Search, and the solidarity in Uncertainty.
"Uncertainty" is the chief article of faith, and the act of capitalizing it is to "enshrine" it (as they admit elsewhere). But it is one thing to admit one's ignorance; it is an entirely different thing to celebrate and make a creed of ignorance and indecision. Were any Universist to come to an actual conclusion he must necessarily be branded a heretic and excommunicated from their "church" ("Meetups," I believe they call them).

It is not uncertainty which has been the contributor to humanity, it is curiosity and the desire to transcend our ignorance — to find Truth. And these things are fueled by our belief that there is real truth and knowledge to be acquired. To even claim that there could be such a thing as "human progress" implies an objective standard, and admits that we have made some movement toward that end.
A faith-based worldview means there are people who know the Truth and others who do not; this leads to division and often hate. In a Universist worldview, no one can claim knowledge to certain Truth, this means each person's efforts at the Search are respected.
But if they cannot claim certain knowledge then they cannot claim that no one has found the Truth. They have no grounds for their rejection of other religions that are based on revelation. Also, it is naïve to think that the solution to the issue of tolerance is to simply deny Truth. It seems more reasonable to say that the solution is the proper application of the concept of tolerance itself, which is the idea that we may all be civil and gracious toward one another even while we may have disagreements. The Universists are in reality just adding one more belief system into the mix of what must be tolerated within society.
It's not what you believe, it's how you believe it! The future of religion is faithless.
It's an exclusive inclusive party! BYOB (Bring Your Own Belief), so long as it's not labeled, "God Says." We'll pour 'em all in to the Hairy Buffalo barrel and drink ourselves silly to the promise of a gloriously uncertain future.

The entire creed of Universism turns out to be logically self-refuting. Might I suggest the following for their consideration:
We absolutely believe that there are no absolutes.
We are certain that uncertainty is the way.
We believe it is right to reject right and wrong.
We have faith that all other faiths are in error.
We assert our right to the enjoyment and preservation of our rights.
We practice tolerance for those who share our vision of tolerance.
We are committed to the journey without a destination, and the search without an object.
Glory be to the Mystery, the Uncertainty, and the Openmind. Amen.

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August 18, 2005

Answering the Cults: A Common Defense

Is it really necessary to understand the cults of Christianity in order to refute them? Do we need to have an exhaustive knowledge of their books and doctrines before we are qualified to offer a critique? I submit that it is not. There are certain claims and issues common to most of them that allow a categorical response to be made.

There is at least one thing common to the derivative religions of Christianity, like Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, the Shakers, and even Islam. Each of them similarly claim that the historic church has gotten things mucked up, and that they, through the illumination of their own founder, have recovered the true teachings of Christ. What this means is that a successful response to this charge would serve equally well against any of these groups, and would undermine their most foundational claim to legitimacy.

I propose a two-stage approach that might look something like the following.

1) Jesus' immediate followers should be considered the highest authority for what Jesus actually taught and meant by His teachings. If this were not so, then Jesus was in reality a poor teacher and a failure in His mission. And if that were the case, I'm not sure why we should be impressed enough with Him to waste our lives serving His cause. This first-generation group authored documents (the New Testament) and mentored the subsequent apostolic fathers, many of whose writings we have access to. The bottom line is that we have adequate materials to consult in order to arbitrate disputes over historical and theological matters regarding Jesus.

2) Unless one has a grudge against the contents of the Bible, there is no good reason to believe that it has been corrupted. The historical and manuscript evidence is on the side of orthodoxy, and support for any conspiracy theories that skeptics might have is so scant that most non-Christian scholars are willing to concede many of the church's claims, e.g., Jesus was really crucified and the tomb was empty, Paul really wrote most of the letters attributed to him, the 4 Gospels are from the first century, the followers of Jesus were dying for their supernatural beliefs in the generation of Jesus, etc. For a more detailed exploration of this point you can refer to one of my recent blog posts: On The Defense of Scripture

If these premises hold, then any group that is based on a challenge to these facts is automatically discredited — we don't really even need to get into the detailed theology of the group. The only thing relevant to the discussion would be any new data that the cult may have to contribute that might shed light on how the early church went wrong in their theology or at what point some corruption of the manuscripts was introduced. But in the absence of that (which is generally the case), we are forced to take the word of a human who arrives on the scene hundreds of years after the fact — someone not trained by Christ (the Author) and whose credentials for making such divine revisionist claims is far inferior to His. For example, Jesus backed his claims with the bullion of a perfect life, miracles, and a resurrection. There is no one else who has held a candle to this, and who should shake our confidence that Jesus' words were authoritative, and that He had the power to get them clearly transmitted for posterity.

Of course, a religious group can bypass these issues by declaring themselves a separate religion from Christianity (i.e., that Jesus, Himself, was off base), but, curiously, this is almost never done. The preferred route is to hijack Christianity and repurpose the name of Jesus. But if a religion chooses to affiliate itself with Christ, then it must be judged by the standard of what is best known about Him. And if it can be established that we do have clear knowledge about what He taught and meant by His teachings, then any group that takes issue with that record is ipso facto disqualified.

For this reason, and others, it is far more important to have a good knowledge of things like scriptural authority, the making of the canon, textual transmission, and Bible translations than it is to have a detailed knowledge of the many cults that you may chance to encounter. With this knowledge in hand, if you encounter a radical group claiming to be the "true" or "restored" church, then you will have a good starting point in your discussion.

Here are some books that may be useful to any who are interested in equipping themselves in this area.

Note: feel free to post any recommendations for books that are worthy of being included in this list. Assuming they are available through LifeWaystores.com, I can have the list modified.

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August 15, 2005

Abiogenesis Woes — Harvard to the Rescue

It seems that Harvard University has decided to jump into the origins of life fray. One might ask: Why now; what is their motivation? Are they simply joining in on an area of promising and fruitful research, like biotechnology? No. According to this article, "The project begins with an admission that some mysteries about life's origins cannot be explained."

The question of how the first life-forms originated (abiogenesis) has proven to be an intractable problem for naturalistic scientists. As John Horgan, senior writer for Scientific American, has said:
If I were a creationist, I would cease attacking the theory of evolution — which is so well supported by the fossil record [that's a howler] — and focus instead on the origin of life. This is by far the weakest strut of the chassis of modern biology. The origin of life is a science writer's dream. It abounds with exotic scientists and exotic theories, which are never entirely abandoned or accepted, but merely go in and out of fashion.
So, given this problematic area of life-sciences, what hope of success does Harvard bring to the table? Well, according to David R. Liu, professor of chemical biology:

My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention.
Wow! This seems a rather brash claim in light of the fruitless work by all other institutions dedicated to this problem over the past several decades. It's also the most refreshing admission of bias that I've seen in awhile. He's convinced before he even begins that he will find a purely natural process — a "simple" one no less — by which raw chemicals may be assembled into structures as complex as machines and factories. But if one believes that God does not exist, or that He does not intervene in His creation, then a mechanistic process is what one MUST find.

If Harvard ultimately fails to make a meaningful contribution to this field, should we suppose that they will concede the possibility of a designer? Not a chance, unless Intelligent Design theorists manage to break the stranglehold that methodological naturalism has on the biological sciences. If they are unable to identify, much less demonstrate, the chemical pathways necessary for deriving self-replicating life, I expect that no concessions will be made (on the record) to Intelligent Design. In place of evidence will come a story proposing, at the highest level of abstraction, how molecules managed to assemble into amoeba. But the devil's in the details. If some underlying mechanism cannot be identified, then the story remains a fairytale.

But not to worry, there'll always be another decade just around the corner bursting with the promise of science and the power of nature to forestall any suspicions that the theory of evolution may be falsified.

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August 12, 2005

Invincible Skepticism

I've just listened to (what I believe to be) the last debate between Gary Habermas and renowned atheist Antony Flew on the evidence for the resurrection. It was really more of a dialog, and Habermas did most of the talking. Other than the fact that Flew is getting on in years and is slow on the uptake, it was a very remarkable discussion.

Flew pitched out some alternatives to the Biblical story, which included such things as Jesus not really dying on the cross (the "swoon theory"), the body not really being buried in the tomb (no tomb to be "empty"), and the resurrection appearances being just "visions" (the "hallucination theory"). Habermas gave detailed refutations to each of these theories, and Flew even seemed satisfied with his case and offered almost no follow-up arguments.

The discussion seemed as though it would dead end, with Flew's shortage of objections, when Habermas finally challenged him on the falsifiability of his unbelief, that is, if there was any conceivable evidence that could break through his skepticism. That's when Flew spoke the words that I find to be a classical formulation of the skeptic's case against the Christian faith:

"I have an almost invincible disinclination to believe in the resurrection."

To be fair to Flew, I shall give his justification for making such a painfully candid statement. He simply finds the resurrection – indeed, the whole supernatural portrait of Jesus – to be so beyond natural experience and his understanding of reality that he simply cannot fit it into place. But my response would be, that is exactly the point!

If there were a God – a premise that Flew has recently come to accept – exactly how would one expect Him to demonstrate His presence and intentions? Isn't it miracles that every skeptic is ultimately demanding? So many times have I heard skeptics say things like, "if God would just make this table rise..."

The thing is, according to the Bible, God has granted miracles in spades. Indeed, he affirms their place in validating His existence and authority, and the authority of His spokespersons (Ex 10:2; Dt 18:22; Jn 10:25,38; 1Ki 18:20-39). How else could we separate the natural from the supernatural?

It seems that the skeptic is caught in an epistemological limbo. He demands the miraculous to validate the existence of the supernatural, but he passes all religious claims through the sieve of the "natural," which excludes the possibility of such things as miracles. The very thing that is necessary to validate the Biblical story becomes that thing which makes it most implausible.

I'm sure that Jesus had not only the Pharisees in mind but also those like Flew when He insisted that there are some who are simply disinclined to belief, and who "will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead" (Lk 16:31).

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August 09, 2005

PETA's Cognitive Dissonance

Much like the women's rights movement, the animal rights movement is a reasonable idea gone bad. Front groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have become increasingly radical in their methods and ideology. But this is no wonder for a group that finds its philosophical justification in the work of atheist Peter Singer, and who truly believe that eating meat and wearing leather are equivalent to the worst crimes of the Holocaust. PETA may like to think of itself as being a rationally grounded cause, but there are at least two fatal flaws in their thinking that I can discern.

1) Their position is based on the idea that there is no moral or value distinction between a human and an animal. Man is not special or "above" the other creatures in any qualitative sense. But in reality, they do make a distinction between humans and animals – a distinction that is moral in nature.

They don't think wolves and lions killing their prey are wrong. I've not yet seen them campaign to stop male lions from eating the offspring of their competing breeders or to stop killer whales from tormenting seals before they eat them. They believe that these acts are just animals doing what animals naturally do, i.e., they are morally neutral behaviors. However, they seem to believe that humans are unique moral agents that can overstep the boundaries of right and wrong. When we exploit animals it is not just humans doing what humans do, we are actually practicing genocide, oppression, and exploitation. We should know better; we "ought" to not do such things. When we butcher a cow for food it is the moral equivalent of Auschwitz, but when a dog mauls a human it is just a "good dog having a bad day" (according to Steven Wise of Harvard).

Why are human activities wrong, but animal behaviors just natural? It is because we are moral agents and animals are not. We are not just different from the animals in our shape, posture, and central nervous systems; we are different in that we have obligations to uphold and justice to administer, and we are violating some abstract law in failing to do so. It is a profound distinction. Indeed, it is a distinction with metaphysical overtones. But it is a distinction that can only be made if we are indeed distinct from the world of animals, and that is an idea that PETA denies.

2) Animal rights extremists tend to be moral relativists (i.e., there are no absolute "rights" and "wrongs" – morality is individually or culturally defined). I say this confidently because of the kinds of people that they look to as their ideological champions (e.g., Peter Singer, Steven Wise) who have well known ethical positions, and because of quotes like these: "Many animal rights advocates (including myself) believe that morality is relative." (John Harrington, animal-rights.com) But if there are no moral absolutes, then there are no absolute moral imperatives relating to our duties toward other species. Why, then, ought we to care about the "suffering" and "injustices" inflicted upon cattle, whales, or chickens?

According to their philosophical presuppositions, there is no higher ethical code to which we must adhere on this matter. Perhaps it is merely a practical issue in that we ought to be concerned, for our children's sake, to preserve our animal resources. But livestock ranchers are doing this. They are not exhausting their herds like the buffalo hunters of the old west. Even so, whatever practical or relativistic criteria of concern the activists may come up with, I can still respond by asking, "Why should I be obligated to conform to your personal ethical standards toward animals?"

In the end, their agenda is merely a preference issue. They prefer not to eat meat or use animal byproducts (or, for some, kill insects), but others enjoy such things. Perhaps in reality they understand that they do not have any bullion to back their ethical pleas, and this is why they resort to power plays. Moral relativism is equivalent to reducing ethical positions to flavors of ice cream. I like vanilla, you like chocolate – it's all good. Imagine the task of trying to get the world to eat only your preferred flavor. Animal rights extremists (which PETA has increasingly become) are in the business of bullying the ice cream vendors into offering just their flavor of choice. PETA is certainly free to advocate for its pet cause, but they have no justification for thinking that they are champions of justice in any real or higher sense than their own personal preferences.

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August 06, 2005

The Vatican's Nazi Neutrality: Condemnable or Commendable?

I was recently watching a rerun of the theologically confused and irreverent movie Dogma when one of the characters made a jab at the Vatican's policy of "neutrality" toward Nazi Germany. This is an often-heard complaint against the "church," and in the minds of the critics would probably fit into the "atrocities committed" category. That is to say, Christianity has supposedly perpetrated more acts of war and oppression than any other cause, and standing aside while Hitler architected and executed his pogrom is just one more example of its true immoral character. Leaving aside the larger issue of Christianity's real record for now, I'd like to make an observation regarding this "neutrality" charge.

Regardless of whether it is true that the church remained silent, the implication is that the church should have spoken out against the aggression and atrocities of Nazi Germany. Indeed, it should have sounded the alarm and led some sort of resistance effort as soon as Hitler's agenda became clear. Now think with me what the skeptic is implying about the obligation of the church. He is saying that if it is really Christ's body and a moral institution, then it should be in the vanguard of social activism. But this is an odd stance given the modern position on "separation of church and state," which these accusers most surely support.

When the church in present times raises its head to speak out against what it sees as atrocities and social decay, it is beaten down for "politicizing" its "articles of faith." Now, my question to them is this: Ought we to be permitted (yea, expected) to be active in shepherding society toward the good, even if that means political activism? Or should we keep to our enclaves, even if the world around us descends into anarchy? The latter option means that the Vatican did the right thing (assuming the original premise) and is to be commended. It also means that the church should have taken no sides in the slavery or civil rights debates, among other issues. However, I don't think this is really what the skeptic is implying. There are really no complaints when Christian activists happen to take the same side of an issue as the skeptic. When is the last time you heard a secularist complain when a liberal church lobbied in favor of a pro-choice or same-sex marriage cause?

I think our detractors instinctively know that if the church is what it claims to be, that it should be leading the charge for social justice and charity. The real problem is that they don't agree with what side classical Christianity comes down on regarding some particular social issues. Unless they wish to put themselves in the awkward position of admitting an absolute moral standard by which they can judge Christian stances, they must, as outsiders, take our causes as they come. Either we do or do not have the right to speak our minds. Either Christianity has a place at the table (perhaps even duties there) or it does not. If not, they can't accusingly ask things like, "Where's the church on the environmental crisis; or where's the church on class struggles; or why didn't the church speak out against Hitler?" If we do have a place at the table, then let them stop clouding the discussion over issues on which secularists don't like our particular position; and it will be a matter of dumb luck for them if we happen to come down on the same side of any issue as they.

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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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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN