A Letter on the Problem of Evil

Mr. Honsberger:

I really enjoyed listening to you this afternoon as you were filling in for Geno.  I was very impressed with you straight answers and just felt compelled to contact you.  Mr. Honsberger I have a friend I have been sharing my faith with the last three weeks.  We have had some very good and intense discussions on a number of issues including salvation, why I believe in Jesus Christ, Christianity in general and as it compares to other religions, eternal life and many other topics.  I really felt things were going well, and thought he might be ready to make a change until the last couple of days.  I received an email from my friend yesterday that I am struggling to answer.  If you could give me some insight I would really appreciate.


He asked me the following:


It is my understanding that, according to the teachings of the Bible, that God has a ‘plan’ for all of us.  And if so, that speaks to destiny.  In other words, we all have a path that we’re destined for, according to His plan.  If that is true then my simple question is why would God choose a destiny for a young child to be sodomized and beheaded by a crazed man.  If the man’s destiny was to be crazed, OK fine.  But why we would He choose such a horrifying destiny for a young child?  The horror that happens to innocent, unsuspecting, and undeserving children makes me question God and His intentions Sander, I’ll be honest with you.  If he is all knowing and infallible, then help me understand why children suffer such horrors as being kidnapped, raped, then brutally murdered and left in the woods to be eaten by animals.


I’m sure there is a patented answer for this, such as “it is not God’s will to step in and interfere with the workings of mankind…God let us choose to act on our own free will, and maybe, through the grace of God, human kind will accept in totality and therefore God may then choose to come take his children back to heaven.  In the mean time, horrors like I have described are perpetrated upon the most innocent and God like of our kind every day.  I’d hate to think that is God’s plan for even one child, let alone the thousands that are abused or worse each day?


I can’t reconcile a God that is loving, pure, good and infallible allowing things such as this to happen.  Why would God not carry a child out of danger?  You said he is omnipotent, so it’s not a timing thing.  If there is hard evidence of His existence as you describe, then where in the Bible does it answer these kinds of questions?


Mr. Honsberger, this is hard for me to answer.  There are a lot of things we don’t know right now, because God is God and we are not, but what is the best way to approach this question.


Thank you so much for your help, I have been bouncing this question off of my pastors at church and friends, and would appreciate any insight you could give me.


Have a wonderful evening!


Sander B.




Hi Sander.  This IS the really important question that all human beings must answer, regardless of belief system or lack thereof.

I have always felt that the problem of evil (what your friend laid out) is really critical for all Christians to wrestle with and have answers to.

To be honest what I am going to say will not necessarily be much comfort at a funeral, but nothing but love helps there.

First let us look at the major options to see if they have answers for this dilemma.  Let us suppose that the atheists/naturalist have the truth.  There is no god, no purpose, no meaning.  We are all on a dirt cloud out in space and all we have is what we make.  To quote famous atheist philosopher Paul Kurtz, the only meaning our lives can have is whatever we make of them.  So if that is the case then the child who is raped and murdered just lost at their chance – the dice came up snake eyes.  No purpose, no meaning, no real way of calling it wrong/evil (other than emoting – the ethical position of choice for most prominent atheists and evolutionists).  If you take this perspective seriously, then all we have is the jungle and the only consistent thing to say in the face of “evil” (whatever that is) is tough luck.  This leads to fatalism or to warmed over depressing thinkers like Sartre, or Heidegger, or other atheists with lame claims to be “resolute” in the face of death – precisely because there is no meaning to it.  So no way to ground even the definition of good and evil and no way to provide real meaning in the face of it – there is the atheist’s dilemma.  This is I think the primary reason why atheism has always been a tiny minority of the world’s population.  Even “atheistic” religions like Theraveda Buddhism try to give meaning to the experience of evil/suffering.  What I find is most people who are atheists are such for a while, but ultimately atheism cannot give answers to the kinds of questions that most people have about life, and they look for something else.

So if your friend is an atheist – how does he answer why these things happen?  Is it evil, other than just his emotional feelings about it, and is there any way to redeem or find meaning in it?


Now lets look at the historical majority religious view.  Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism and so on, and all their western counterparts, gnosticism, Wicca, New Age all have some basic commonalities.  Most important here is that of Maya – the dream or illusion,  This is the central teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita – probably the most popular book in India, and of many of the other eastern related books.  The idea of Maya is that none of us see the “real” state of reality, in that we are all actually one or the same thing.  In most eastern schemes Maya is “hiding” the reality of the oneness of Brahman/god/Vishnu/the force/ so on.  In some Buddhist schemes Maya hides the nothingness/void/sunyata of everything.  In all these schemes the ultimate reality is the oneness of all and the illusory status of the world we all “perceive” to live in. In other words we don’t really exist as separate beings – we just think we do.  And therein lies the problem – we think that we are separate.  So we “kill”, “steal”, “rape” and so on, not realizing that none of this is actually happening, and it is this understanding that is the key to rising above the illusory state and achieving moksha/liberation/”salvation” etc.  So good and evil are also part of the illusory world and the enlightened realize and teach this.  I could quote you dozens of gurus and other enlightened masters who teach this and have talked to many, and yes, they really do believe it.  So how does this view approach the problem your friend has?  If all is an illusion, then the young child being raped and murdered is also an illusion and the “true” reality is that nothing ever happened in the first place.  Or if one takes karma/reincarnation seriously, then in the classic view this child was a rapist in a previous life and therefore nothing evil (or good for that matter) happened, rather it was a “balancing” of karma/action.  Or if you take the “happy face” New Age version, then the child CHOSE to be raped and murdered, for its PERSONAL GROWTH!
If your friend is into some version of eastern thought, does he understand the implications of this view?  It washes out good/evil and leaves one struggling to mentally justify (“Right consciousness – the Eight Fold Path) what apparently instinctively he knows to be wrong!!! One does not have to be an ethics professor to know that the murder of innocents is wrong, but in this view, ultimately, there is no wrong and all meaning is washed out as well in the oneness of all.


So if one takes either of the major world view competitors here, I think it quite clear that neither can even identify the problem (why evil things happen) nor can they give any real meaning to the situation.  I would also argue that on a psychological level no human being can actually live within these options.  The atheists philosophers (such as Nietzsche and my own professor Michael Tooley) bemoan the lack of meaning – Sartre gives in to Nausea, Camus to absurdity – but they do not rejoice in this “fact” rather they weep over the loss of meaning.  Nietzsche knew that once God was removed from the situation, then all ethical norms and more critically perhaps all possibilities of meaning are also removed.  Then you turn to the east and find no solace there either – all is an illusion and nothing, I repeat, nothing ultimately matters.  Both of the competitors come up short.


Now about the Christian option. It is hardly a patented answer that I or anyone else is interested in.  We all want sense or meaning to this issue.  Our soul screams for meaning, for significance in this horrible situation. Our answers must be both intellectually coherent and emotionally satisfying.  Lets look at both of these.

The way the problem is formally stated is something like:

God is all powerful – therefore he could stop evil.

God is all loving – therefore he would stop evil.

Evil exists.

Conc. – God does not exist.

Literally hundreds of books and articles have been written both pro/con on this argument by professional philosophers, so I will try and not overwhelm you with the possibility’s here.  Simply put the line that is most problematic is that God would stop all evil because of his love.  The Biblical record here is that God often allows suffering for other, perhaps larger, purposes.  The example of the man born blind in John chapter 9 or what happened to Joseph in the OT are examples of this.  The entire book of Job addresses the question, but interestingly enough does not give us clear explanations for what was happening.  We are reminded that God is in charge, and that our presumption of “understanding” such as Job’s friends had or eastern religions offer (karma) is not only problematic but clearly pathetic.  Which one of us claims to have real understanding why this or that happens?  Sometimes it is simple, e.g. a drunk runs his car into a tree and dies and we usually feel quite comfortable in saying that we know why that happened.  But what about when the drunk runs his car into the car of a soccer mom returning home with her kids?  Not so neat then.  So how do we answer this?

One answer that is part of the issue, is freedom, which your friend mentioned.  In the movie “Bruce Almighty” they make a point of saying that Bruce (in taking over for God) is allowed to do whatever he wants but not violate free will.  While this is not completely consistent with the Christian view, it does bring up the real questions.  Does God value freedom and why so much?  Christians do believe that God has a “plan” but it is not a plan for everything to go right for you and for you to be allowed to do whatever you want. The Bible speaks against both ideas.  Rather it argues that God’s plan is to take believers and make them into the image of his son, more loving, kind, patient and so on. Unfortunately for us, that plan necessitates suffering because we don’t seem to learn without it.  I wish that I would be more loving and more forgiving and that this could happen in a vacuum, but I know that unless I am pressed, I won’t change.  I don’t know of anyone that is any different.  Included in this scenario as well is the idea that God’s plan includes our freely choosing to respond to his love and mercy or to deny it.  This is where the freedom question comes in.   If God wanted to, he could easily force belief, but we can’t think of an analogy where that would be worthwhile in this life, so why would it be in heaven?  I can beat my child into compliance on all things, but when my child is forced to tell me that she loves me – any thinking person with a conscience knows that this is a sham.  God values our freely loving him so much, that he allows for the hard choice of rejection to be real as well. This is why C.S. Lewis argued that the prison of Hell was the only prison where the gates are locked from the inside! As someone as said – Hell is a monument to the freedom of man!  But some have responded that ok – nice of God to allow freedom but did he have to give us so much?  Couldn’t we have chosen for God or not without the option of mass murder as part of the package?  Lets look at this – lets suppose that we lived in a universe where mass murder was off the table – you could still murder but only once and only one other person.  If we had grown up in that universe then most likely we would see that singular murder and we would ask the same question – Couldn’t God have given us freedom without the possibility of anyone murdering anyone else. You can see where this goes – pretty soon no freedom is left, because each successive “greatest” evil is ruled out by each successive possible world.


Another critical part of the equation is the reason for death and suffering in this world.  The atheist can only point to natural causes and the eastern religionist can talk about the dream, but as I argued before neither of these options can even honestly ask the question let alone give an answer that makes sense.  Christians say that the reason for this is our sin.  It is not God or Martians who are raping and killing little children – it is us.  We point back to Adam and Eve and the whole concept of original sin to explain the empirical reality that every in this world, and throughout all times, that people behave in the exact same disgusting ways.  We kill, we rape, we lie, we steal, etc ad infinitum.  Because of this – we all die.  Now perhaps your friend doesn’t want to buy the Bible’s explanation at this point – ok fine – please give another explanation for the universal experience of evil being perpetuated by people of all background, religions, cultures and so on.  We know that it is generally the case that with most of the evil that we are all so frustrated by, is done by us.  Natural disasters aside for the moment, our experience is that human beings slaughtering each other, not God or others.  The Bible’s understanding of natural disasters is that in the fall of Adam and Eve, the creation also “fell”. Again perhaps this doesn’t make sense for your friend, but it is part of the comprehensive approach that the Bible takes to this question, and certainly makes more sense than the options we discussed above.


It is quite interesting that in all religions and differing philosophies, we see at least some semblance of a wish for something better than what we have.  Even atheistic philosophers know that things should be better, as seen with Nietzsche and Marx for example.  All religions point to the frustration in some way with this world and wish for a better one.  All have come at the same problem with different explanations as seen above.  The very fact that your friend could express the thought that he can’t reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horror in this world is an expression of the same sentiment.  The Christians I believe are the only ones that can truly and honestly frame the question and the only one that have coherent and meaningful answers.  The atheist cannot consistently even define good and evil and the eastern thinkers denies that they are real categories.  So then what is the Christian solution?


Christians believe that the only solution is that given in the Gospel – in that God took our behavior/sin so seriously, that he sent Jesus to die for our sins.  That this incredible act of love was necessary points to just how seriously God takes sin.  God is not only all powerful, and all loving, but he is also all Holy/just.  We would not like a world where murderers get off scott free, and we scream out for justice when we see this – this is why I rejoice over God’s holiness/justice, even though I stand condemned in the face of it.  Jesus took our sins and our death in our place.  This is what we call the atonement – that Jesus himself paid the price for our failures. He was killed and buried in this payment of love.  But we believe that the story didn’t end there.  The Bible points to the fact that Jesus, who was killed and buried, came back to life in front of hundreds of witnesses, both believers and non-believers.  This resurrection from the dead validates all that Jesus did and said.  His immediate disciples then went out to spread the message of what they had seen.  If they just made it up – why would they die for something they knew to be a lie?  People die for causes, and innumerable other things, but I can’t think of a single analogy of why people would die for something they knew to be a lie.


In summary, Christians take the question seriously, and we have general answers for the phenomena of death and suffering, but neither I or any other Christian can with integrity give specific answers for even most specific examples.  I worked in a jail for three years with mass murderers, rapists, baby killers and the rest.  I don’t pretend that I can possibly explain the specifics of each scenario, but I do know that all of us are born into a fallen world (thrown into it in Heidegger’s language) and face the reality of death and suffering.  Into this mix Christians are called to trust God with details that we can’t possibly comprehend in any total way.  The Bible tells us that the response God is interested in is not our knowledge, but rather our faith in Him, as the one person who knows the whys and wherefores.  This is not a dodge, but rather the honest statement of a created, finite being, who makes no claims at universal knowledge about any of the particulars.  But the God the Bible describes does not allow evil for arbitrary reasons, and is both holy/just and loving.  As the scriptures say – “Shall not the God of the universe do what is right?”  This allows, just as seen in John 9, for the very real possibility of meaning in the midst of our suffering.  We have an autistic son, who through most of his life has been incredibly violent and destructive.  He would put his head through windows and walls and pound his head on concrete sidewalks and once in a while on somebody’s nose.  It is hard to describe what this was like for our family.  And I would love to point to my wife and I as strong people who could rise above and deal with it but that would be a terrific lie. Only by God’s grace and mercy did our marriage survive, and God made us grow up in ways we did not want to.  Our experience with this was very painful, but it was not meaningless.  We have experienced the death of people we love and we think the same way about that.  We choose to believe that there is meaning even in “senseless” and evil acts.  This is not a blind leap, but rather trust in our heavenly Father, that he is in charge and someday will make sense of what we perceive.  So no this is not a pat answer, it involves both reasoning and faith, but it does take the question seriously and it does off meaning and hope, whereas the options offer only desperation, fatalism, and meaninglessness.

I hope that this is helpful.  Please let me know what he thinks.


God bless you,

Cultural Theory

Bill Honsberger


  1. It has sometimes been claimed that the 20th century might be characterized as the “Age of Structuralism”.  Explain what you regard as the principal insights of structuralism; what constitutes their novelty; for what critical purposes structural analysis is most useful; and what are its principal limitations or defects.  For the last, chooses an alternative critical viewpoint (e.g. post structuralism, Marxism, hermeneutics, etc.) that you regard as offering the most cogent challenge to the structuralist approach and indicate why.


Ferdinand De Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics set the course for 20th century discourse in what many call the ”linguistic turn”.  Throughout most of western philosophy linguistics had been seen as a fairly non-controversial aspect of the discipline, merely a handmaiden to important discussions elsewhere.  But Nietzsche upset the apple cart of the western tradition with the death of God thesis and with his rambling insistence that meaningless is upon us with the lack of a centering authority (such as God, or Konigsbergian morality or the like!)  If Nietzsche is correct that there are no “facts”, but only armies of metaphors and metonyms, than perhaps language has to be seen in a new way.  De Saussure proposed in his work to challenge the time-honored theory of language as representation, that is that words are assigned meaning and value as they correspond to particular items in the world.  This was far too simple a reading of the issue and didn’t recognize strength of he Kantian transcendental idealism argument that postulated none of us are actually in contact with the world as it is, or ding an sich (thing in itself) but rather are confronted with phenomenon, which are one step (at least) removed from the actuality of the thing.  Thus language becomes the framework for one’s understanding of the phenomenon.  How this is constructed became the Structuralist project.


De Saussure argued that words themselves are not essentially tied to the thing in any way.  By that he argued that the words are merely arbitrary signs.  It could have been “cat” to describe a certain mammal in English, but it also could have been something or anything else.  There was nothing in the actual animal that made “cat” the necessary assignation for itself.  De Saussure argues that the concept of “sign” as simple representation was also flawed.  For him the sign was really a compilation of two separate things, the aural sound made (which was material in the sense that it had a certain physical affect on the listener) and the mental concept that the listener had when that physical affect was occurring.  Combining the latter (the signified) with the former (the signifier) was to affect the “sign”.  This arbitrary nature of the sign points the way to the need for a system in which the sign operates.  This system/structure is the network of all the possible signs within a certain language.  Since each of the respective parts of the structure are themselves arbitrary signs as well, then what is crucial is not what each words supposedly “means”, in the old fashioned sense, but rather the relationship between all the signs.  These relationships would be somewhat flexible in that there could be instances of new sounds/words, which would cause a ripple effect in the structure, as relationships between signs were destroyed, altered and renewed.  But on the whole there was only a limited flexibility, limited primarily by the “tools” inherent within the language.  The tools would include the syntagmatic relation of the signs, in that their were rules in any given language that ordered the linear arrangement of the signs in a sentence, and the paradigmatic relation, in that one could replace the given sign with certain words that would be similar, but not with an unlimited supply.


The heart of this then is the structuralist does not look to any words as having absolute meaning or value.  Each word/sign is only meaningful in some larger context, without which it has no possible value at all.   Similar in some significant ways with Wittgenstein’s “language games”, the structuralist approach saw language as the field of play within each particular universe that it is applied to.  This sets the tone for several new versions of applied structuralist thought.  Claude Levi-Strauss took the approach and applied it to anthropology, finding that, in a deeper way the Durkheim’s functionalist approach could manage, that structures also existed within cultures or societies. Each unit or person within a culture was in relation with other units and these relations loomed much larger for him than the respective unit/person/individuated sign.  This was novel as the cultural anthropology field had long been dominated by a colonial/patriarchal mindset, which deemed the cultures under study as unevolved, primitive, etc.  This new understanding allowed Levi-Strauss to see the parallels within different systems, not in a competitive sense, but rather as different versions of the same phenomenon rising respectively and in a different way in other cultures.  So the witch doctor/shaman of one culture is on the same value plane as that of the medical researcher of European culture.  They might even arrive at the same place, argued Levi-Strauss in his The Savage Mind, such as finding the poisonous plants, but they both are relative to their own structure and neither has any epistemic primacy.


Another very interesting application of structuralism was found in Roland Barthes Mythologies.  In this work Barthes applied structuralism to a wider field of semiotics that is to the culture in the areas of art religion, mass market advertising, clothes, hairstyles, etc.  In other words, signs do not merely fill the linguistic space of any culture, but all of culture can be seen as a target rich environment for structural analysis and examination.  Since structuralism insists that the individual sign has no meaning in itself (essentialism) but rather it’s meaning is to be found in its relations to its neighboring signs within a language structure, that meaning for Barthes could do double duty.  First in a denotative sense, there is the literal sense that the sign has.  Secondly, and more important for “deep” structural analysis, the sign has a connotative sense, and this is where “myth” is born.  Barthes gave the example of a young Algerian African boy, in French Beret and saluting the Tricolor flag.  On the surface level, one might see a boy, a flag, a French uniform, etc.  This is the denotative nature of the picture.  But the sign gives birth to more signs, with the signifier/signified dialectic proceeding forever.  So the myth is born from the picture of a loyal French citizen of the then rebellious state trying to split from its colonial domination.  A very comforting picture indeed to the citizen in Paris or Tours.  (Fairy tale as well – my parents were in Paris during the Algerian crisis- machine guns on the Arch D’Truimph and “Tommy” guns all over the streets – not very comforting!  We lived in Frankfurt at the time and my brothers and I were not allowed to come into country because of the trouble.)  Barthes Mythologies give many anecdotal examples of deep structures being used in mass marketing to create a certain response.  It is in this last vein that I see an illustration of one of structuralisms more useful insights.  The de-centering of the sign shows the power of manipulation that is most vividly available within any mass marketing campaign.  When one of my children was 3, he announced to me that McDonalds was the best hamburgers ever made and we should immediately go and get some.  Considering that he had never actually eaten a McDonalds hamburger, as I hated their burgers with a passion, this was quite a conclusion for him to come up with.  The fact that he had at that time “consumed” virtually perhaps hundreds of hours of Ronald McDonald and other notables proclaiming the virtues of the burgers there, it is no surprise that the marketing had a powerful effect upon him.  I spent years trying to convince him that commercials are all liars, with limited success.  Another wider example of this is adorning some boring car with some beautiful, bikini clad girls.  The frames of the commercial denote the car, but the girls are myths of a whole different order, which is obvious to even polar opposites such as radical feminists and Christian fundamentalists.  In the field of religious studies, I also find the structuralist approach helpful in the sense of framing and contrasting with the personalist approach.  The deep structure of a culture/religion might be radically different with respect to an individual believer in that culture/religion.  Knowing the framework of the Roman Catholic church, its hierarchy, historic texts, rituals, etc and contrasting that with different individuals or even different groups within the larger system can help a scholar/student understand the larger phenomenon and its own individual fluctuations. The fact that Irish Catholics are more loyal to the Pope, generally speaking, than are Italian Catholics, can all be understood with the combined tools of bother structuralist and personalist approaches to the datum.

This brings up what I see as a major problem with structuralism as a system of thought.  The anti-essentialist or even anti-human (as some have put it) element within the system does not seem to allow for any real “rebellion” or originality, spontaneity or creativity.  If the signs only can be made sense of within a pre-existing system, which is coherent and comprehensive, than how does anything new ever overturn the system?  It seems that this approach probably correctly deduces the arbitrary nature of most words, (controversial still in many circles – Vietnamese word for cat is “ga meow” – I kid you not!)  but as applied to people this seems to build a type of linguistic prison, which assigns arbitrariness to the people, who are not mere units, and limits their freedom.  In this sense then there are some linguistic merits to the framework and even to some cultural analysis, but it is far too rigid a system to apply well en Toto with people as individuals.


The most challenging alternative to structuralism in my mind is found is found within Derrida’s extension of the field of relations within the structure.  While not having any sympathy for Derrida’s own methods and conclusions (whatever those might or might not be – depending on the critic!)  it does seem that from within the structuralist account Derrida has an argument.  If in his mind De Saussure is still playing within the metaphysics of “presence” tradition of the western philosophers, then the arbitrariness of the signs points to a much wider range of “play” or polysemiatric definitions.  It seems for Derrida the relations between the signs only shows a “trace” of what has been erased, that is the previous relation of “meaning” that the structuralist account has deduced.  Once one accepts the thought/language connection in a real way, than each sign is continually in flux, as language, culture, individuals all evolve, and as such there cannot ever be a real definitive meaning to any text (whether analyzed synchronically or diachronically).  Since there are no essences to be locked in, divine, natural or other contenders all need not apply and are all disregarded in this account, then it seems to me to be difficult to get off the slippery slope that De Saussure has perhaps unwittingly set up.  Derrida merely points where the anti-essentialism has to go, and the playground is constantly expanding and multiplying with no real end in sight.



2) Choose three works (or figures) on your reading list and compare/contrast how each defines and theorizes “popular culture”, what aspects of “popular culture” each tends most to highlight, and what limitations each seems, in your estimation, to display.  Feel free to suggest your own views regarding (1) whether (and why) “popular culture” represents some special theme as opposed to other manifestations of “culture” and (2) what you regard as the most adequate way to theorize and critically approach it (and why).


The first look at “popular” culture I want to examine is that of Sigmund Freud.  In two of his many works, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud sets up a very unique and controversial thesis of how culture operates and exists, which has a particularly telling conclusion as applied to this notion of “popular culture”.  For Freud, culture was the group manifestation of the types of repressed neuroses that he believed were held in common by all individuals.  Driven by such themes as the pleasure principal, the thanatos/eros divide, and most importantly the sexual repression of the males who longs to have sex with his mother, only to be frustrated at the presence of his father who stopped him from his desired goals (as explained by Freud in his Oedipus complex, the individual took his id (unconscious desires) and his ego which tried to control the id, and formed a superego, a larger more absolutizing controller which tried to harmonize in some ways the competing id/ego urges.  This repression of the more basic id by both the ego and superego (which was not the result of anything within the individual but only developed from without by outside forces) lead to a continually frustrated and neurotic individual, torn by guilt from his own desires and that of his father/god who was stifling him. Given this account, the way Freud could discover the source of the suppressed desires was through dream analysis, which he believed gave the analyst “access” to the hidden or repressed urges. So in The Future of an Illusion, Freud takes a popular projection theory about religion from Feuerbach, and argues that this is what organized religion is, a group neurosis assuaging feelings of guilt and propriety about the meaningless world and their role in it.  Culture becomes in this sense an enemy (developed more fully in Civilization… ) of the individual who wants to do lots of “bad” things, but the superego of the civilization forces the individual to suppress the urges. The God or the police or the armies then are seen as enforcers of this particular neurotic individual, as the father had been when the individual was young.  Thus for a Freudian analysis, “popular” culture could be seen as perhaps the most effective way to suppress and animal, destructive elements within humans.  (The “Barneyization” of the children as it were)  The directions of popular art, media, books and such then are available as “dreams” of sort, unconsciously showing the “real” desires or suppressed desires of the populace at large.  So the advent and popularity of say, Star Wars or other science fiction literature, could perhaps be a shared unveiling of the repressed desire for control and meaningfulness in the universe, which is unavailable in the individual life.


Compare and contrast this with the themes of Louis Althuser as established in his Lenin and Philosophy and many other works.  As an unrepentant Marxist, he shares many materialist presuppositions with an atheist like Freud.  There must always be material causes for phenomenon and God, and souls or essences were not part of the menu.  But Althuser also deviated from classic Marxist thought, especially in the area of the Hegelian dialectic concerning economic causes being the sole (for Marx) driving force in the culture.  Althuser saw that each culture had within it certain operating forces, which were just as important as the economic drive of classic Marxism.  There was the RSA’s or Repressive state adjudicators (can’t remember the “a” part right now!)  and the ISA’s which were the Ideological state adjudicators.  The RSA’s included the police and the army, which could and would use violence to enforce the given power framework.  The ISA’s would include religion, art, and other areas but especially the educational system.  These would use non-violent means of inculterating the populace into compliance with the powers that be.  While Freud thought most of the activity was unconsciously working its way through any given culture,  Althuser focused on the material and conscious powers that are projected upon any people.  Since for him there could only be on RSA but many ISA’s in any given culture, Althuser saw that capitalism used the power of the mass production of things to help to domesticate the culture from seeing their lack of power and freedom.  This reification process, seen by other writers as well, served capitalism’s goals of keeping the workers from understanding their true situation in the world.  Worse yet from Althuser’s perspective, this situation not only preexisted in the culture, but through interpellation (sp?) “Calls” and invites the individual to his/her place with the pre-existing culture at large.  So in this sense the system self-perpetuates its dominance and each successive generation is programmed and fit into the system.  Mass marketing in this sense becomes “niche” marketing, but each niche must be retained from within the existing system, enforced by the RSA and domesticated by the respective ISA’s.


In some respects Antonio Gramsci effectively showed this in an earlier time within The Prison Notebooks.  In his reflection as to the failure of communism to win out in Italy, and heightened by the frustration of watching the fascists instead take over. Gramsci postulated that it was the differences between the mass culture of the northern part of Italy, which saw itself as intellectual, urbane, etc, as opposed to the southern agrarian part of Italy, which was religious and unsophisticated, etc.  This clash of opposing “popular” culture types, had kept the southern and northern workers from uniting in their common understanding and cause, to throw out the oppressing Bourgeoisie.  This can especially be seen in how Gramsci saw the Roman Catholic Church’s role and that of the “local” intellectuals, especially Croce.  Croce as an Idealist of sort and the RC Church as being a modern manifestation of platonic idealism, had somehow masked the workers plight and made them compliant towards their “masters”.  Gramsci had urged the northern workers to come to the aid of their southern counterparts, but this had not occurred.  Gramsci uses the word hegemony to describe how (similar to ISA’s) the different parts of the culture had all been used to form and inform at the same time, the workers into their proper roles, as compliant worker bees, happy in their servitude.  This hegemony was instilled in all forms of mass or popular culture.  Thus the society had been protected from its rightful doom and the revolution had been stalled.  But somehow the Fascists accomplished the deed in a very short time.  What Gramsci noted and inferred for future cadres to learn from, was that the Fascists had focused not on the real needs and rights of the worker class that communists had been urging them to do, but rather on national themes (thus uniting both north and south).  The glories of ancient Rome, of Italian nationalism, and themes which inspired people to look past their real problems (as Gramsci saw it) and see themselves as a force were nationalistic and not economic.  The Roman Catholic Church helped forge this fascist tsunami by expressing RC blessings over the reinvesting of the Italian as Caesar myth, which had the side benefit of expanding their own power as well.  Gramsci notes the value of popular culture from this interesting angle, seeing how the Fascists had better sense of the psychology of the culture, and thus turning it from its docility into a new progressive (depending upon perspective) program.


In some sense I see that all of these writers as well as many of the other thinkers on the list brought many valid points into the “popular” culture.  Some like Adorno, saw the popular culture as merely a denigration of what had been high culture.  Others like Jameson, sees the capitalist/modernist mentality in its late stages as mass producing popular culture, thus undermining and globalizing all local and truly indigenous cultural formations.  My argument would be that the particular schools of thought or traditions that they come from limit them all.  Presuppositions rule!  None of them, while sometimes enlarging the envelope from safely within the boundaries of their respective movements, seem to be able to apply a multiplicity of outlook or perspectives to the phenomenon.  If one is Marxist, even neo Marxists like Althuser or Jameson, then in some way Marxist presuppositions seem to dictate what frameworks can be applied.  In this sense they all exhibit their own set of Kantian categories which (unlike the actual categories described by Kant) predispose them to only see things from within their categorical straightjackets.  Of course (as will be described in question 3 later) if the hermeneutical tradition is correct, this is because all they have is their own “categories” which both establish or preconfigure the interpretation thus grounding it, and thus limiting it from being anything other than competing, mutually exclusive (in some cases)  perspectives.  It was refreshing to see Marxists come out of their economic prison and see other forces other than “show me the money”.  Their perspective has an incredibly difficult time dealing with the motivations of homicide bombers in Jerusalem or martyred pastors in India and Pakistan.  They try, but it doesn’t really fit as well without ideological factors woven in.  From my own “enlightened” perspective (of course – no smileys on this computer – shame…)  Popular culture can hardly be described in any simple way with the accuracy that can encompass the entire datum.  While it is true that at one point, half of American kids seemed to own one white glove (even sadder given the last ten years of MJ) another major part of the “popular culture” rejected it.  All culture, like all politics, seems to be “local”, in that people generally look to their own interests, and these might be economic and the may be ideological and they may just be faddish or “pastiche”. The revenge of black light Elvis as it were.  As I will explicate more fully in question three, I think one needs a “toolbox” approach to the question of popular culture, and some approaches, used in harmony as needed, can better serve our understanding.


# 3  Given that there are a variety of “critical discourses” available and that some are incompatible with others, explain how you would approach the problem of choosing among them.  For example, would you follow a “process of elimination” (some just aren’t cogent or useful); or a “tool-box” model (i.e. they all have something to offer, it only depends on fitting the “tools” to the problem at hand); or some sort of “synthesis”?  Put in other terms, what might be the “criteria” that an adequate approach to cultural theory and critique must fulfill?  Which critical discourses (or combination of them) best satisfy these criteria and why?


As already stated above I come to this question with a sense that the best model is seeing all of the prospective models as tools to draw upon as necessary given the particular situation.  The incompatibility of many of the systems is endemic to their own presuppositions driving them into particularized boxes, with nothing to harmonize or synthesize them.  Of course this is exactly what some of the systems themselves are demanding, that no “grand theory” of anything is possible so localized narratives are all one has, and none has any more value or epistemic certainty than any other.  So how does a hopelessly pre-modern (as it were!) Christian find a way to learn from and find useful all of these mutually exclusive frameworks?  Great question – hope I can answer it.

First it is critical for me to say that since I do think that there are absolutes, moral certainty, and real things existing and discoverable in the world, that my own presuppositions are at odds with almost all the writers in some way.  But in other ways I find myself in sympathy with many of the writers.  As Nietzsche once quipped in a letter, Marx was just a “closet Christian” to use our vernacular. His concern for the masses of oppressed workers (weeds to Nietzsche’s mind) just showed that Marx, like Hegel, had not completely left behind the Judeo Christian tradition, as Nietzsche believed that Darwin had shown conclusively as the way to go.  God had no job left after Darwin, and Nietzsche impolitely applied the epitaph.  So in this way many of the Marxists writers are driven by utopian ideals and humanistic goals.  In many ways these goals are similar to my own belief and understanding.  When Althuser or Jameson shows how capitalistic mass production can reify and homogenize aspects of culture in a dehumanizing way, I am impressed with their analysis of mass cultures negative impact.  While I don’t see capitalism as the end all of the problems of the world as they do, I do see the need to press capitalistic drives with a certain humanism (a Christianized one of course – smile!) that can keep in check the greed unleashed to their and their cultures destruction.  But the utopian aspect of Marxism in most of its forms is too optimistic in both their assessment of the potential of human beings and of the cultures they form.  The 20th century showed the folly of what many of the “workers paradises” were capable of, the destruction of freedom, of meaning and value, of the environment and so on, not to mention the death of perhaps over a hundred million people, all to create that once and future “socialist” utopian dream.  So as Marx stole from the Judeo Christian tradition to express a concern for the masses, than I can recognize the value of critiques of popular culture without acceding to the other presuppositions which are in fact opposed to my own.

Another writer I have certain sympathies with is Jurgen Habermas, if only because he is the one writer on the list who has not completely overtly abandoned the enlightenment project.  Just like I think that the United States Constitution was better in its initial principles than it was in its applications of those principles in a consistent manner (slavery for example)  I also believe that much of what Habermas is saying, that there is a point to the discussion, that communication can reveal some shared values common to all, or least most.  This then can be expressed in ways that properly posit a humanism and rationality that would benefit all.  So much of the pomo/poststructuralist has reacted so adversely to the metanarrative problem (Lyotards incredularity noted here) that in my mind they have overreacted and taken nihilism (although some are pretending this is not case – but their arguments are weak!)  Most of the enlightenment project suffered from hubris, and can be corrected, but as Habermas notes rationality is far superior to irrationality.  I would concur and argue that just as Descartes tries to “center” and secure his project with “God” as the guarantor of the certainty of his thoughts, and just as Kant argued for God as guarantor for universal morality, then I would try and show Habermas that his desire for a rational world and a moral world (no more holocausts) must have a “center” and that this center is that of God.  Nietzsche despaired at what the loss of God would bring in some ways, although certainly in his arrogance he loved the death as well.  But a hundred plus years later we see the fruit of the loss of “logocentrism”, the Balkanization of thinking, morality and culture, and it is not pretty at present nor I am optimistic for the fruit of the near future.  So when Habermas argues that there is still a center, I am in agreement and although we may disagree on what grounds or articulates that center, that is a conversation worth having.

Contrast this with  Gademer’s project.  If as he and Ricouer are saying is true, that each individual is in constant interpretive mode with all others, that this “prejudice” or pre-suppositional backdrop invests and informs all our interpretation, than we are in constant dialogue and no answer is ever even possible (Derrida smiles here).  In saying this I would argue that it is true that each of us is framed from within our interpretive communities, histories and experiences.  This kind of frankness is necessary if one is to overcome these limitations.  Far from postulating the hopelessness of purely subjective subjects, constantly in difference and “difference” with each other, it is this understanding which not only grounds our communication but allows us to recognize and go beyond these strictures toward a greater whole.  The analogy of learning another language or conversion in religion might work well here.  Even though I speak an adulterated (south Texas/southern California) type of English, I am not only able to communicate with others who only partly share my experience (say an Aucklander or Singaporean) but even LEARN to communicate with someone from a completely different culture and language.  In this language is not a structural prison, but rather like Wittgenstein’s games, and the rules are available for all.  In the same way, people might convert, like a Nebraska housewife I met who converted to Shia Islam, even though the language, the history, the culture, etc, from both starting points were radically opposed.  In this sense humans in their freedom have shown the amazing philosophic and cultural dexterity to bridge all these admitted historical and biographical presuppositions.  This is one thing I enjoyed about Levinas’s early work about the “face”.  The face was almost primordial, and existed before language placed the person in its proper framework.  The demand for ethical action preceding all language and cultural preconditions.  Of course I think that his Talmudic studies could alone ground that argument but that is a fun discussion for another day.


Even though I am also hopelessly pre-suppositionally and rationally opposed to so much of what Derrida and Foucoult bring to the discussion, much like my affinity for Nietzsche, there is wisdom even in the negative application of their own thoughts.  Foucault’s emphasis on power relations can be very instructive in some situations, but much like my problem with Marxism it focuses on only one aspect of human culture and is therefore inadequate to understand too many other situations.  His writing, like some of the postcolonial writings, seems to suffer from the problem of saying “un-equal power relations are wrong” or “colonialism is wrong” but not having the absolutizing meta-ethical tools in place to justify the critique.  To wax Derridean for a moment, if all we have is “play” and “difference” and inter-textuality and so on, than as he realized, meta-discourses, whether grand narratives in science or categorical imperatives or exclusivist religious claims all must be rejected.  Habermas and many Christian writers see this in common.  No “logocentrism”!  Fine, then we follow the Nietzschean march into the Nihil and how can we stop?  But culture does not act that way, whether local or popular. Culture still resists the void and can be measured and seen in light of these many schools of thought.  My own perspective requires me to see them in relation to my faith, practice and philosophical realism, but there is much to be gained from seeing all of these viewpoints in relation to the world and to each other.

Un peu Levinasian Pensees d’avortement.

A Few Levinasian Thoughts on Abortion



Bill Honsberger




Schindler’s List is seen by some as a movie heavily influenced by Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy, which is summarized by the idea that ethics should be seen as “First Philosophy” as opposed to metaphysics or ontology.  This ethics is played out in the response to the “Other”.  Taking off from other views of the other, Levinas sees the other as incarnated in the “Face”.  This unwelcome intrusion of humanity is what “turns” Schindler in the movie and in a related way is what turned Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL, (National Abortion Rights League), who upon encountering the “Face” of a unborn baby during the ultrasound recording of an abortion, “turns” and the movie The Silent Scream reflects this change in his own humanity and responsibility.  This move of Levinas towards the other as seen in the face might be seen as a proper response to the dead end of ontology as applied to ethics.  Some argue that the unborn baby and even in fact the already born child, are not truly “persons” and therefore can be killed without moral harm.  Their arguments are all based on ontological concerns, which therefore can be undermined by Levinasian tactics.  Potential rebuttals to Levinasian tactics and responses to the rebuttals will also be included in this paper.




Schindler – “War brings out the worst in people, never the good always the bad,


always the bad.  But under normal circumstances he wouldn’t be like this.  There


would be just the good aspects of him, which he’s a wonderful crook, a man who


loves good food, good wine, the ladies, making money”.


Stern – “Killing”.


Schindler – “He can’t enjoy it.”


Stern – “Byevsky told me the other day somebody escaped from a work detail


outside the wire.  Goethe lined up everybody from the missing mans barrack.  He


shot the man to the left of Byevsky, to the right of him.  He walked down the line


shooting every other man with a pistol.  Twenty-Five”.


Schindler – “What do you want me to do about it?”


Stern – “Nothing, nothing.  We’re just talking.”


Schindler – “Perlman.  Husband and wife.  Have Goldberg bring them over.”



Schindler – “Look, all you have to do is tell what its worth to you.  What’s a person




Goethe – “No, No, No, No.  What’s one worth to you?”



Stern – “It’s Hebrew from the Talmud.  It says whoever saves one life save the world




Schindler – “I could have got more out.  I could have got more, maybe more, maybe


if I just…I could have got more”


Stern – “Oscar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you.  Look


at them!”


Schindler – “If I had made more money, I threw away so much money.  You have


no idea, if I just”


Stern – “There will be generations because of what you did.”


Schindler – “I didn’t do enough”.


Stern – “You did so much”.


Schindler – “This car.  Goethe would have bought this car.  Why did I keep the car?


Ten people right there.  Ten people.  Ten more people.  This pin.  Two more people.


This is gold.  Two more people.  He would have given me two more people.  At least


two.  He would have given me one, one more.  One more person.  A person, Stern.


For this.  I could have gotten one more person.  I didn’t.  I didn’t. (Sobbing).” (1)



Schindler’s List was one of the most acclaimed films of modern times.


Winner of numerous awards, it focused on the bleak and desperate situation for


Jews during World War Two, and how one gentile, Oscar Schindler, was


transformed from a corrupt, hedonistic, egoist into a person who saved the life of


approximately 1,100 Jews from the death camps of the Third Reich.  The movie


portrays Schindler as a man, who like most people, didn’t care about anyone else,


whose entire life was spent pursuing his own pleasure.  Schindler is confronted in


several different instances with an individual, who forced him to face up to his


ethical responsibility for that individual.  In two parts of the movie we see this


happen.  Schindler is confronted with an old man, who is disabled, who wants


merely to thank Schindler for allowing him to come to the factory and work, which


has saved him from death.  Schindler speaks to the man and is clearly irritated at


the interruption of his routine.  He later upbraids his foreman Stern for allowing the


event to happen.  Subsequent to this the old man is killed by the Nazis because of his


disability.  Schindler then goes and argues with the Nazi command over the loss of


the man.  Although is seems clear that his argument is only over the utility of the


man at this point, Schindler is in the unique position for himself as a Nazi


functionary of berating the high command over the loss of an untermensch.  Later


Schindler observes a mass of Jews being herded towards the death camps.  He sees a


little girl in a red coat in the mass of the gray herd.  He stares at her, almost in


disbelief, knowing that she is about to die.  Later he finds her coat in the dispensary,


and then later on her corpse is dug up and burned, which Schindler witnesses in


horror.  Here we see the birth of the ethical sense of responsibility in the man.


These illustrations point to the kinds of changes that Emmanuel Levinas insist


should be the real foci of philosophy.


Some have noted that the movie was written about or was at least familiar


with, themes made popular by Emmanuel Levinas.  These themes include the


controversial thought that Ethics should be seen as First Philosophy.  This dramatic


philosophical move goes contrary to thousands of years of philosophical tradition,


which had seen ontology or metaphysics in the role of First Philosophy, with ethics


being derived consequently from whatever ontological position one took.  He says:


“Is not moral conscience the critique of and the principle

of the presence of self to self?  Then if the essence of

philosophy consists in going back from all certainties

toward a principle, if it lives from critique, the face of

the other would be the starting point of philosophy.  This

is a thesis of heteronomy which breaks with a venerable

tradition.  But, on the other hand, the situation in which

one is not alone is not reducible to the fortunate meeting of

fraternal souls that greet one another and converse.  This

situation is the moral conscience, the exposedness of my

freedom to the judgment of the Other. (l’Autre).  It is a

disalignment which has authorized us to catch sight of the

dimension of height and the ideal in the gaze of him to whom

justice is due.” (2)



Murder and violence, perceived through Levinasian eyes, becomes the logical


consequence of ontology unbridled.  Edith Wyschogrod notes that, “annihilating


other persons is a quantum leap over earlier forms: the killing of the other is


murder, an attack on transcendence, on what lies outside the sphere of ontology.


The face is in the trace of transcendence, the beyond from which the face comes and


which issues from an immemorial past that cannot be concerted into the origin of


the face.” (3) Here we have allusion to another critical part of Levinasian


vocabulary, that of the “face”.  To Levinas, the face is not physical in the sense of


the aggregate collection of eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc, but rather the humanness,


the transcendence of the infinite in the human other.  It is particularly important to


this paper that the other is for Levinas a decidedly human other. He says that, “In


proximity is heard a command comes as though from an immemorial past, which


was never present, began in no freedom.  The way of the neighbor is a face.” (4) This


face, this “infinite that blinks” is for Levinas the starting points of the ethical


development of a human being.  The face represents the intrusion, the invasion, of


the other into the subjectivity of a human self.  This intrusion into a person’s


happiness is the beginning of the process of humanism, or ethical development, of


that person.  It is also important to understand that for Levinas, this ethical


understanding, this response to the intrusion of the other, is an individual act, not a


theoretical generalization, but rather a particularization of an ethical


rapprochement, which then must be done to each individual other, to the infinity


within each other.


This philosophical disalignment from the tradition is a wholly new move.  As


Anthony Beavers points out:


“For him, ethics is, first and foremost, born on the concrete level of

person to person contact.  He does not find the moral ‘ought’ inscribed

within the laws of the cosmos, in reason, or in any universal desire for

pleasure.  Instead, each individual case of moral conflict produces the

moral ‘ought’ itself. ..It will be difficult to present an argument here,

because the moral ‘ought’ for Levinas has already occurred before

reason comes on the scene…The goal of presenting ethics is not to

discover the truth of ethics, but to make an appeal for ethical

transformation.  Levinas invites us to listen…to the voice of the

Other, who sanctions all of our moral obligations. “(5)



The pre-rational person is then held “hostage”.  Levinas notes that “The self is a


sub-jectum: it is under the weight of the universe…the unity of the universe is not


what my gaze embraces in its unity of apperception, but what is incumbent upon me


from all sides, regards me, is my affair.”(6) Prior to this response demanded by the


presence of the other, the subjective self is busily pleasing itself by assimilating and


totalizing all that surrounds it.  All things can be swallowed and used and subjected


to the subjected self.  The intrusion of the other violently upends all this.  The


totalization process of the self is confronted with an infinite other, which cannot, by


its very nature, be totalized. This is always the result of a personal situation, not a


pre-existing ethical base or philosophy.  It is born each time the Other intrudes.


This ultimately leads to the command, you shall not murder.  Levinas


comments that “My being-in-the-world or my place in the sun, my being at home,


have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom


I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out in a third world; are they not acts


of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? Pascal’s ‘my place in the sun’


marks the beginning of the image of the usurpation of the whole earth.  A fear for


all the violence and murder my existing might generate, in spite of its conscious and


intentional innocence.  A fear which reaches back past my self-consciousness in spite


of whatever moves are made towards a Bonne conscience by a pure perseverance in


being.  It is the fear of occupying someone else’s place with the Da of my Dasein; it is


the inability to occupy a place, a profound utopia.”(7) Thus, for Levinas the


ontology of Heidigger leads inevitably to war, violence, wrenching of the other,


completely attempting it’s totalizing mission.  Ethics must come first, it is basic.  By


that I mean that it is not argued for, but rather from. (8) This only becomes absolute


for Levinas when it happens without expectation, that is, without the expectation of


reward, without personal gratification as the result.


This novelle approach to ethics breaks with the philosophical tradition, not


in the sense of positing a new problem, for since Hegel the question of the Other has


been seen in many other writers.  What Levinas does distinctively switch is the


approach to ethics.  Levinas comes out of the rationalistic tradition of Descartes and


Kant and Husserl.  This forces him to recognize that, in the words of Anthony


Beavers, “anytime I take the person in my idea to be the real person, I have closed


off contact with the real person; I have cut off the connection with the other that is


necessary if ethics is to refer to real other people.”(9) This is in direct contrast with


Heidigger for whom our responsibility is to ourselves and not to an other, which also


to Heidigger may not even exist separate from Being.  This is also true of Sartre,


who identifies the subject as “for-itself”.  Levinas also stands apart from the


analytical ethical traditions of utility or enlightened self-interest.  Both are seen as


specious because of their derivation from ontology.  Both serve as prime examples of


totalization of the Other into the self.  The other then becomes merely a tool, to be


used as needed by the self, to the self’s own ends.


For Levinas, the face was the incarnation of the Other and perhaps also the


divine Other or God.  In Ethics and Infinity he argues that “Here I am.  To do


something for the Other.  To give. To be human spirit, that’s it.  The incarnation of


human subjectivity guarantees its spirituality…Dia-chrony before all dialogue: I


analyze the inter-human relationship as if, in proximity with the Other – beyond the


image I myself make of the other man – his face, the expressive in the Other (and


the whole human body is in this sense more or less face), were what ordains me to


serve him.  I employ this extreme formulation.  The face orders and ordains me.  Its


signification is an order signified.  To be precise, if the face signifies an order in my


regard, this is not in the manner in which an ordinary sign signifies its sign; this


order is the very signifyingness of the face.” 10) In Totality and Infinity he argues


that the any part of the body can be a sign of the face. (11) This idea of the face as


incarnation leads to what he calls “the possibility and impossibility of murder”.  The


face represents what is human, soft, uncovered, and vulnerable.  The human is


mortal and this very mortality screams out as my responsibility to it.  Even though


the other is mortal and therefore capable of being murdered, my response to the


other’s intrusion makes murder impossible.  The ethical response precedes any


thought, any totalization, any attempt at subsuming the other into my self, my


egoism.  Murder has motives, causes, reasons and all of these things are the result of


thoughtful process.  The ethical response suggested by Levinas treats these


byproducts of ontology as latecomers to the party.  The ethical response of welcome


precedes any thought.  It holds me hostage.  It makes me responsible.  Murder is


excluded before the thought can be thought.  It strikes me in this analysis that it is


critical for Levinas that the Other incarnated in the face has this possibility of


infinity and divine otherness element invoked numerous times and places.  Like


Descartes, this “furniture of the mind” element must be built in and certainly nature


does not provide this ethical response.  Contra in fact, nature’s response seems


almost entirely instinctive and frequently violent.  While instinct can be seen as pre-


thought, the violence one sees so often in nature makes it hard to see nature as the


pre-cause of the ethical response.  Therefore the divine other, God, becomes the


originator of the response.  It is hard-wired into the human person.  The human


then is seen as the image of God incarnate, alluded to by Levinas in Ethics and


Infinity. (12)


In analytical circles a similar move has been made by Alvin Plantinga in


“Warrant and Basic Belief”.  (13) Plantinga argues from the foundationalist


viewpoint that certain things are basic, by that he means that certain things are


elemental.  These things are not argued for, but from.  Normally foundationalist


argue that things such as perception, logic, memory do not need to be defended, but


are assumed as justifying knowledge.  Plantinga’s controversial move was to argue


that belief in God is just as “basic” as perception, or memory and therefore can also


be argued from as opposed to for.  The beauty of the move is that it is hard to make


the case that one can separate out perception or memory as basic in an arbitrary


way, therefore philosophers are free to argue on the same grounds for other “basic”


qualities.  It seems to me that Levinas has the same advantage and disadvantage as


does Plantinga here.  To argue, and I am sympathetic to his move and motivation,


for ethics as first philosophy, Levinas is on common ground with many other


thinkers in arguing, ala Descartes and Kant, for innate knowledge. But of course


Levinas is not arguing for innate knowledge, but rather for innate ethical responses.


The disadvantage is that innate knowledge is seen by many as a reach, a rationalistic


holy grail that is assumed but never proven.  No empiricist will pay attention.  This


is why I think the move for divine help is necessary.  The lack of grounding for


empirical grounds for ethics has been a dramatic, contradictory failure.  Yet the


impulse to find ethical grounding continues in all camps.  The beauty of what


Levinas does is to make ethics the grounding for all other philosophical issues, as


opposed to the opposite.  It pre-supposes the ethical response and makes it the


priority regardless of position, status, race, gender etc.  It is truly a humane ethic,


because it is centered in the response of the human as made in the image of God,


and as incarnated as the face of the Other.


Another important film was produced fifteen years ago and caused much


controversy, acclaim and rancor when it premiered.  “The Silent Scream” was


based on the development of the new technology of ultrasound imaging, as applied


to abortion.  The movie purported to show the unborn baby reacting violently to the


probing of an abortionist’s instruments.  The ultrasound imagery produced what


clearly looked like a human face, literally screaming as the probe attacked its body.


The scream is silent as the ultrasound did not pick up audio signals.  The movie was


acclaimed by pro-life people as showing the true nature of what they called an evil


act, the murder and dismantling of a human being.  Pro-choice proponents decried


the movie first as a fraud and then shifted the discussion as to whether the fetus


could feel pain.  The controversy over abortion is truly on of the most emotional and


divisive issues plaguing our society today.  For many people, pro and con, it is The


consuming single issue, which is placed at the foremost of political candidacies,


cultural understandings and even basic relationships among neighbors can be


driven one way or the other, merely on this single subject.  The twist of the Silent


Scream is that it is hosted by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL,


probably the pre-eminent abortion rights lobby in the country.  Nathanson who


personally performed thousands of abortions, had an ethical change and came to


decry abortion as an inhumane act of barbarism.  He talks about his reaction to the


ultrasound in the film. “those technologies…those technologies, those machines we


use every day, have convinced us that beyond question the unborn child is a human


being, another member of the human community…indistinguishable from any of


us.” (13) When the film of the abortion was shown to the Doctor who performed the


abortion, he was so shocked that he left the clinic that day and never did another


abortion.  In some strange sense the removal of the parts of a baby had produced no


reaction in him, but the actual face, shown in a silent scream, had a profound effect


on him.


What I want to try here is to argue that the historic arguments concerning


abortion have all been about ontology, about Being.  These arguments have


historically produced the same ambivalence that Levinas is so driven by.  The


Levinasian move here, perhaps, can put the abortion argument on an entirely


different plane.  And this argument has even


wider concerns, in that there is a concerted effort from some prominent circles to


expand from abortion to euthanasia rights, in that both arguments can be made


equally from an ontological basis.


There have been on average around 1.3 million abortions in America per


year since the controversial Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.  The American Medical


Association is one prominent organization, which changed its views on abortion


over the past 100 years.  Even its definition of abortion changed.  In 1859 the AMA


described abortion as “The slaughter of countless children, such unwarrantable


destruction of human life”, and in 1871 as “The work of destruction; the wholesale


destruction of unborn infants”.  Compare this with the description from the AMA in


1967 – “The interruption of pregnancy; the induced termination of pregnancy” and


in 1970  – “A medical procedure”.(15) The language concerning the abortion debate


has also changed drastically.  The AMA used to use language such as “embryo”,


“children”, “infants”, “victim”.(16) By the late 1960’s you instead see words being


used like, “parasite”, “products of conception”, “unwanted pregnancy”,


“conceptus”, “valuable research material”.  The argument does not stop there.


Michael Tooley, PhD, professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at


Boulder, said in 1972 “It is a wild contention that new-born babies are persons”.(17)


Pete Singer PhD, Bioethics chair at Princeton University concurs; “Human babies


are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time.  They are


not persons” (18)  He says elsewhere “a period of 28 days after birth might be


allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to live as others” (19)


Professor Tooley has argued elsewhere that the limit can be as late as two years after


birth, as the infant is not a “person” until then. (20).


Another major issue within the abortion debate is based on the reasons given


for abortion.  In a poll taken by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, an arm of Planned


Parenthood, over 93% of the respondents gave reasons that had nothing to do with


health concerns. (21) Most had to do with lifestyle concerns, economics, relationship


problems and so on.  The reason this is important is that almost all of the reasons


given were about the subject themselves.  The concerns were not about the health or


concern for the baby.  Most of the arguments seem to coalesce into the “rights of the


baby” versus the “rights of the mother”.  Sometimes the argument is cast as a


woman having the right to do with her body as she wants, as opposed to the pro-life


claim that there are two bodies concerned in the issue.  This is where the arguments


have all broken down and become so obviously arguments about ontology or


metaphysics.   They are all about Being, concern with Being, assigning real or only


potential Being, arbitrary judgments about when Being starts and so on.


Levinasian tactics would seem to be helpful here.


If ontology is the problem, then ethics as first philosophy is perhaps the cure.


A Levinasian move here would be to see the unborn child as an Other, a source of


infinite resource and possibilities.  The child is an Other, regardless of whether


other others consider them so or not.  Since it is not mere physicality, which


comprises the face, and since the face speaks to the transcendence of the other, and


since the concerns of the subject are held “hostage” by the intrusion of the


unexpected other, it seems clear that the abortion illustration is an incredibly clear


analogy for the subject/other encounter.  The expecting mother, prior to pregnancy,


is the subject  The presence of another into her most personal space is perhaps the


rudest encounter one can imagine.  It is fascinating that some pro-choice people


refer to the unborn child as a “parasite” at this point.  Even if one takes that as a


real analogy, then the point still can be made.  The parasite is not the same, it is


other.  It cannot be totalized under the banner of one body, for it is another body.


Mere geography (more ontology) cannot be the determining factor of whether the


baby is truly an other or not.  The actual vision of the face, as seen in The Silent


Scream, can almost be seen as overkill in one way and the grounding for the


argument in another.  Since the face is not reduced to physicality, the otherness of


the baby is not in question.  The only possible rebuttal is that the baby is an other,


but not a human other.  Since for Levinas this is a primary issue, it becomes central


to this argument.  Various observations must be given space here.  The baby carries


solely human DNA.  No human being reproduces another species, only another


human being.  The question of biology is not in question here.  The video shows that


language like “conceptus”, “fetal tissue matter” merely mask the identity of the


human other.


The question raised by Tooley and Singer is a wholly different matter.


“Personhood” as a category is very difficult to define.  In several conversations that


I have had with Dr. Tooley, I pointed out the arbitrary timetable that he had set.


There were no physiological changes of note occurring in a two-year-old child that


could justify this conclusion.  He defined the primary essential characteristic of


“personhood” as the self-consciousness of ones own existence and future existence.


If this is the case, then autistic people, comatose people or hallucinogenic people are


all then classified as “non-persons”.  Once you allow this type of thing, any sort of


totalization and violence is possible.  In the infamous Euthanasia Order of 1939,


Adolf Hitler said that “The authority of physicians is enlarged to include the


responsibility for according a mercy death to incurables” (22) This act allowed the


Nazis to literally kill all the mentally handicapped people in Germany.  This of


course was only the first of many marginalizations and totalizations and


destructions of people groups in Germany.  Dr.August Hirt, Nazi official, said in


1942 that “The Jewish-Bolshevik Commissars personify a repulsive yet


characteristic sub humanity”.  (23)  The former commandant of Treblinka death


camp, one Franz Stangl, said in 1971 “It had nothing to do with humanity – it was a


mass.  I rarely saw them as individuals.  It was always a large mass”. (24) This


quote, quite reminiscent of Schindler’s reaction in the movie, shows how totalization


-the byproduct of ontology, reduces humanity to a mass, finite, consumable.


Levinas urges us instead to see humans, all humans, as the Other, each one,


instantiated separately from each other, each one as a occurrence and rude


intrusion into the subjected self’s interiority.  The totalization of even one for selfish


reasons in not acceptable.  They are all someone, from something, from somewhere.


Editorialist Vincent Carroll notes the human life is being devalued in many


academic circles.  His most noted illustration is that of Georgetown University’s


Tom L. Beauchamp who says that “Because many humans lack properties of


personhood or are less than full persons, they are thereby rendered equal or inferior


in moral standing to some non-humans.  If this conclusion is defensible, we will need


to rethink our traditional view that these unlucky humans cannot be treated in the


ways we treat relevantly similar nonhumans.  For example, they might be


aggressively used as human research subjects and sources of organs.” (24)   If


someone could explain the difference between him and Joseph Mengele, I would


love to hear it. Instead, Levinas calls us to correct our alleged concern for civic


responsibility and face our social responsibility instead.  We need to look at the


Other individually and not make general statements, which serve to smooth the path


to murder.  In Essence and Disinteredness he says “All the negative attribute, which


state the beyond of essence, become positive in responsibility, a response answering


to a nonthematizable provocation and thus a nonvocation, a trauma…as though the


invisible that can do without the present left a trace by the very fact of doing


without the present.  That trace lights up as the face of a neighbor, in the ambiguity


of the one before whom (or to whom, without any paternalism) and for whom I


answer.  For such is the enigma or ex-ception of a face, judge and accused.”  (25)


All our ontological arguments for abortion rights serve as fuel for a whole new


attitude towards the unborn.  Their neediness it our call to response, not to destroy.


As Dr. Jere Surber says in his essay “In this sense, ‘Do no kill me’ is the primal


ethical command, not as if ethics were already established as a discourse and had


‘rationally’ decided that this is the first principle that should be adopted, but rather


that the recognition as an absolute command issuing from the Other first opens the


field of ethics as a possibility.” (26)  The only question then is whether we will be


consistent for the human Other, or fall back into the ontological quagmire of


violence and totalization.


“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold’

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


  1. B. Yeats (27)






1)      Spielberg, Steven.  Schindler’s List.  MCA Universal Home Video 1994

2)      Levinas, Emmanuel.  Otherwise than Being.  La Haye, Nijhoff, 1974 P. 88

3)      Wyschogrod, Edith.  “Derrida, Levinas, and Violence”.  P.190 as given in Seminar Packet.

4)  Otherwise than Being. P. 127

5)  Beavers, Anthony.  “Introducing Levinas to Undergraduate Philosophers”.  P         1.  Http://www.cedar.evansville.edu/~tb2/levinas_intro.htm

6)      Otherwise than Being.  P. 127

7)      Levinas, Emmanuel.  From Existence to Ethics.  Paris: Vrin, 1947 P. 82

8)      This type of argument is based on certain presuppositions, as seen in the rationalistic tradition.

9)      “Introducing Levinas to Undergraduate Philosophers”.  P. 2

10)  Ethics and Infinity.  P.  97.

11)  Levinas, Emmanuel.  Totality and Infinity.  Duquesne University Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  1969  P. 262

12)  Ethics and Infinity.  P. 69  There are several other scriptural allusions to the Divine Other in Levinas’s writings.

13)  Plantinga, Alvin.  “Warrant and Basic Belief”. Paper presented at University of Nebraska Colloquium 1989.

14)  Nathanson, Dr. Bernard. Narration of The Silent Scream.  1985 Http://www.silentscream.org/silent.htm

15)  Willke, Dr. J.C. “Why can’t we love them both?.  P. 4 Http://www.abortionfacts.com/online_books/love_the_…/why_cant_we_love_them_both_37 .as.htm

16)  Ibid.  P. 4

17)  Ibid   P. 4

18)  Hentoff, Nat.  “An Apostle of Infanticide at Princeton”.  Rocky Mountain News. September 13, 1999

19)  Ibid

20)  Tooley has written several articles on this subject and has personally discussed his view with me several times.

21)  Grand Island Independent.  “Reasons Give For Having Abortions”.  As reported by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. November. 11,1990

22)  “Why can’t we love them both?”  P. 5

23)  Ibid.  P. 5

24)  Carroll, Vincent.  “The Subtle slide of human life”.  Rocky Mountain News.  February, 2000

25)  Levinas, Emmanuel.  Basic Philosophical Writings.  In “Essence and Disinterestedness”.  P. 118

26)  Surber, Dr. Jere.  “Kant, Levinas, And the thought of the “Other”.  Philosophy Today  Fall 1994  P. 307

27)  Yeats. W. B. reproduced in Abortion in America.  Bergel, Gary.  Intercessors for America Press.  USA.  1988



Updated: 05-01-2012

Author: Bill Honsberger — This paper will look at the origins and development of the particular Hindu school of thought known as Advaita Vedanta.  I will first look at the medieval roots of Vedanta as founded by Sankara and later critiqued by Ramanuja.  I will then show how Vedanta was transformed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by interaction with colonial and nationalist ideas and by interaction with the world at large.

“I believe in Advaita; I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter, for all that lives.  Therefore, I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and if one man fails, the whole world fall to that extent…”(1) With these words the Father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, revealed the thoughts that were a major influence on him in 1924.  However, the ideas he mentioned date back hundreds of years to the thoughts of an influential thinker named Sankara, and they also reflect the ideas of more modern Indian scholars who were shaping and adapting ancient ideas to a contemporary present.  The terms Advaita, which means non-dualistic, and Vedanta, which literally means the end of the Vedas, together refer to a series of thinkers and ideas that as a school go back at least to the eighth century C.E.

The most notable scholar who is usually seen as the originator and systemizer of Advaita is Sankara (788 – 820 C.E.).  The school of Advaita is described by some as theology and by others as a philosophy.  It seems to have elements of both.   There are some commentators who see Advaita as the culmination not only of Hindu thought, but also of all religious thought.  For example Satprakashanda, a follower of Vivekananda (1863-1902), says, “Strictly speaking, Vedanta is not a particular religion but the common basis of all religions.” (2) While this bit of hubris may seem far-reaching in its scope, it is a logical entailment of the non-dualistic system as proposed in Vedanta.

Vedanta accepts the scriptural authority of the four Vedas, the Upanishads, the two great epics, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana, and the Brahmasutras.  It gives little acknowledgement to the Puranas and Tantras.  In fact, one could argue that in the great ebb and sway of Hindu thought in general, that the Advaita “revolution” was the backlash against a major emphasis on idols and “bhakti” devotion to numerous gods and goddesses.  Amidst the huge sea of millions of deities, Vedanta attempts to synthesize the earlier texts of Hindu scriptures into an overarching system, which, while not totally dismissing bhakti, relegates it to a secondary place in favor of a higher and ultimate unity “behind” or “underneath” all the respective deities.  Advaita was built upon the earlier Mimamsa tradition of exegesis.  This tradition, dating back to the second century C.E., stressed the Vedic tradition of dharma, the ritual understanding of how people are to act in the universe.  As Clooney notes, “Ultimately, the only thing that matters is the event of sacrifice: dharma, the object of Mimamsa inquiry, is the sum of all right relations, the activated, fully understood and rightly connected set of all the small and large activities and things which together constitute the sacrificial whole.” (3) Even though Advaita is modeled on the same paradigm, it does break in some significant ways and claims to have superseded its predecessor.  It is often called the Uttara (later) Mimamsa.

Born into a family of Shiva worshipers, Sankara has been transformed over time into an avatar, a literal incarnation of Shiva himself.  Seen as a child prodigy, his hagiographers state that he had mastered the four Vedas by the age of eight, the age when boys normally begin to study the Vedas!  Even as a young man he showed his desire to become a renouncer, a “sannyasin”, and seek “moksha” or liberation from the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth, or “samsara”.  At sixteen he left his family home and became a sannyasin.  For the next sixteen years he would travel to many parts of India, visiting temples, reading and studying, debating with different groups and writing his commentaries.  There are several legends about the deal his parents made to have a son who would do so much but live only a short life, and Sankara in fact only lived until he was thirty-two.  But in that short time he wrote voluminous commentaries and refuted many opponents from differing traditions.

His teachings on Advaita center on several important ideas.  The most important is “The Brahman is real; the world is unreal. The “jiva”(individual soul or spirit) is verily Brahman and no other.”  This needs to be unpacked quite a bit.  The Vedas teach about many gods, but to Sankara, the key is Brahman.  Using many Vedic and Upanisadic texts, Sankara argues that all the deities mentioned in the scriptures are merely hints of the one real god.  When Sankara argues in this way, his point is not that the other gods are not gods, but rather, they really represent the one true reality of the universe – Brahman.  In the same way, all that appears in the world to the senses is “unreal”.  In this sense, Sankara thought that the world is “Maya”, the dream or illusion.  Maya also means, “that which measures”, and is used in the sense that Maya measures the unmeasurable, diversifies the undiversified, and changes the immutable.   The world is illusion because of “avidya” or ignorance of the true nature of things.  The jiva is the individual soul or “atman”.  Each bit of the world is atman.  So in essence Brahman really is all that there is, but the individual is blinded by his/her own ignorance into thinking that he/she, as an individual, is separate from the universal one.  Maya blinds from the true or higher nature, and through knowledge of the truth “tat tvam asi” (that art thou) the atman recognizes what is real and Maya has no more power over the enlightened mind.

There are several other important ideas for Sankara.  The first is Nirguna Brahman.  By this he meant that Brahman is pure being, consciousness and bliss (Sat-cit-ananda), and without attributes.  This Satcitananda is not three qualities or attributes of Brahman; rather it is “its essential nature.  Looked at ontologically, we realize the Being or “Sat’ aspect of Brahman.  From the epistemological viewpoint, Brahman is revealed as “chit” or consciousness.  And from the point of view of the highest value Brahman is “ananda” or bliss itself.” (4) The idea of nirguna Brahman is in direct contrast with Saguna Brahman or God with attributes.  In bhakti devotion it is common to speak of the grace, mercy, love, or anger of the deity.  Many of the deities were known for their “specialties” in that they fulfilled certain roles for their devotees.  For example, Ganesha the elephant-headed deity was (and is) prayed to for help in starting new endeavors, as Ganesha will clear the path of all obstacles.  Brahman for Sankara was beyond all these worldly things.  The attributes of Ganesha were of Maya; they were not the ultimate reality.  Brahman is also beyond form (nirakar).  Brahman could not be perceived in the world of forms.  This was quite radical in a time of overwhelming idol devotion among the masses.

Brahman also involves thinking about transcendentally.  Brahman is the all-pervading Self-immanent in the phenomenal world.  In this sense Nirguna Brahman is manifested as Saguna Brahman in relation to the created universe.  So Sankara could argue that Nirguna Brahman was “present” in all of creation but not in the sense of reality, but “behind” or underneath the false perception of reality – maya.
The goal of life is to realize or recognize the unity of Brahman and the identification of the individual self with the ultimate self.  This one thing should dominate one’s life.  There are different methods of recognition of the true reality, but the ultimate path for Sankara is that of self-knowledge (jnana) through textual study and meditative experience.  Moksha or liberation comes in the ultimate sense when the atman/jiva recognizes its true self. Man must realize this liberation intuitively because Brahman is without physical senses.  This also cannot be done by reason, whose only role is to show the impermanence of Maya. This liberation is not attained by works or devotion but rather through wisdom and realization.  Once liberated, the atman is released from Maya and is absorbed into Brahman consciousness.  The individual is under bondage and liberation does not literally cause he/she to be absorbed, because that would mean that there is change in Brahman.  The famous illustration is that of the “snake-rope”.  One thinks one sees a snake but the illusion vanishes when one realizes the true nature of the rope.  But there still are physical consequences in Maya, such as shortness of breath from fear and so on.
Others think that Sankara saw the soul or atman also as an impermanent entity.  As in Theravada Buddhism, Menon sees that “The Jiva is the Self immanent in the material mind, but it is not itself the Self…the Self has no individuality or manifoldness or limitations and admits of no divisions.”  (5) So absorption (atman returning to Brahman as the drop into the ocean) is really a metaphor for a change of thinking.

What about all the changes in the world?  How is it that the world has a beginning and ages and seems to be changing if in fact Brahman does not change?  Shankara replied to these questions:

To the ordinary ignorant people, – who under the influence of avidya resolve the underlying unity into the multiplicity of the changes and thus identifies the two, – the multiplicity of the changes is the only Reality…But those who have realized the truth that the underlying is untouched by the evolving multiplicity of changes – do not regard these changes as something separate and apart from Brahman, do not look upon them as so many independent and self-sufficient things complete in themselves… (6)

Sankara thus has set up in essence a two-tiered universe.  The lower tier consists of Maya brought about by avidya.  For this reason, the physical universe appears the way it does.  People trapped in this tier by their ignorance think that they exist as separate atmans.  But ultimately enlightened souls are liberated from their ignorance and “see” that this world can be transcended and are not ultimate, and finally recognize that they are not separate but rather identical to Brahman.  In this moment their consciousness changes and they now still may live on in the second tier, but remain unaffected by all that happens in it.  Good, evil, life, death, and all the rest have lost their hold on them.  The upper tier is pure being, consciousness and bliss.  This is the true and ultimate reality of Brahman.  One famous Advaita illustration is the ocean and raindrops.  The hydration cycle pulls the water from the ocean and the clouds move the water over land.  Then the water is released as rain drops to fall to the ground.  But somewhere in the process the individual drops forgets that they were part of the ocean.  They  mistakenly thought that they were individual drops.  So the raindrops fall and then sweep into streams and rivers and finally return to the ocean.  It is their return to the ocean, which is moksha and Samadhi (absorption into Brahman) all at once.  They don’t change and become the ocean.  They merely lose their illusory bondage and return to their pristine state.

So how does one live in this two-tiered reality?  It is interesting to note here that Sankara often worshipped publicly in temples and gave prayers and devotions to different deities.  Many have speculated on the lack of consistency at this point. In some of his writings Sankara also criticizes bhakti devotion as basically the point of view of a child or foolish person.  But then he would also say that idol worship was better than no worship at all as it still moved one towards the ultimate realization of Advaita.  This type of inconsistency haunted much of Sankara’s writings and, as we will see later, it is also typical of many modern Advaitans.  Ravi Zacharias, in commenting on the story of “Arjuna’s dilemma” from the epic Bhagavad-Gita, recounts an old story about Sankara’s duplicity on this point.  Sankara had just finished lecturing the King on the deception of the mind and its delusion of material reality.  He goes on “The next day, the King let loose an elephant that went on a rampage, and Shankara ran up a tree to find safety.  When the King asked him why he ran if the elephant was nonreal, Sankara, not to be outdone, said, ‘What the King actually saw was a nonreal me climbing up a nonreal tree!”  (7) One might add here that modern Advaitins look both way before they cross the street too.

In rejection of these teachings but staying within the same scriptural traditions as Sankara, comes Ramanuja (1017-1137).  He was a devotee and leader of a Vaisnava community.   He is considered the leader thinker of Visistadvaita Vedanta.  This means qualified non-dualism.  Like Sankara, Ramanuja is concerned with scriptural adherence and claims that Sankara has misread many of the important Vedic passages.  Sankara’s hermeneutic involved seeing a two-tiered system of understanding the text.  The higher meaning always refers in some way to monistic Brahman.  The lower meaning refers to Brahman as incarnate deities.  Ramanuja rejects this distinction and call for an even reading of all texts.  His own commentary on the Brahmasutras rebuts Sankara on several points.  As one writer puts it:

Ramanuja’s theory of language is a decisive element in his philosophy. He repeatedly expresses opinions to the effect that language mirrors reality. He writes, for example, “the plurality of words is based on plurality of meanings; the sentence, therefore, which is an aggregate of words expressing some special combination of things, and hence has no power to denote a thing devoid of all difference.” To say the same thing in the recently developed paradigm-case argument jargon “here is a jar” is meaningful if there is a jar. But ‘here is a jar’ is meaningful. Therefore here is a jar. This stance with regard to language leads Ramanuja to reject as meaningless all sentences that do violence to the elementary laws of logic. Hence his arguments “tend to refute the view that there is a difference and absence of difference at the same time.” (8)

The system is qualified non-dualism because in some important ways Ramanuja still agrees with Sankara, even while he criticizes him. Ramanuja would agree that Brahman is the ultimate reality and that Maya hides that ultimate reality. He would agree that moksha from Samsara is the central goal of life. But his critique of Sankara is centered on the fact that for all intents and purposes idol worship, bhakti devotion, has now been relegated to a secondary status or even worse – to the thinking of children and fools. Ramanuja’s understanding of Brahman is Brahman is Atman, and that means that each bit of Atman really is Brahman. Therefore Brahman permeates the universe with his presence. As such Brahman has qualities. He is Saguna Brahman. Ramanuja claimed this was not pantheism because he still wants a distinction between creator and creation. His own Vaisnava beliefs saw moksha as being with Vishnu is heaven, saturated by the grace of Vishnu but not identical with Vishnu. So Brahman pervades the universe but is in some way not the universe.

His view of Maya is also distinct from Sankara. This “soft” version of Maya sees avidya as the real problem and liberation coming through realization, but liberation can also come through bhakti. Since the idol really does “contain” deity in some meaningful way, then devotion is just as appropriate as self-realization. Maya still hides the reality of divinity, but itself has some existence. Ultimately at the end of the day Ramanuja still wants to agree with Sankara that Brahman in undivided, but that in some sense is eschatological. During the present age Brahman permeates the universe and so Ramanuja “saves” idol worship from the ravages of the iconoclast Sankara.

Now I want to turn from the medieval roots of Vedanta and go to more recent representatives. Some important historical information must be mentioned here. In the mid 1700’s India was colonized by the British Empire. The effects on India were dramatic, and one could say that is true on the British as well. Without going into great detail various groups arose in the 1800’s, which in their own ways opposed the colonizers and reacted to the outsiders. The reason this is important is that in India religion is life. It is the very sine qua non of the population. So political movements reflect the character of the country. Groups like the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj and others tried (and still do) to instill a sense of nationalism, a “pan-India” consciousness. This attempt to develop this broad consensus of nationalism has primarily been centered on “Hinduism for India – India for Hindu”. But what is Hinduism? Is it Advaita or Dvaita? Is it the more central deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Krishna or the ancient deities of Indra and Agni? Is it focused on Dharma for Brahmins or do the Untouchables have a role as well? All of these questions are troubling (for the student of religion as well! ? ) for those trying to marshal the whole of the populace to throw out the oppressors.

One notable influence on these “reformers” of Hinduism is that many of them had deep and meaningful contacts with western ideas and religion through the British schools and government agencies. Many of them went to the schools and were confronted with Christianity, western philosophy, and new technologies. According to Andrew Fort “the connection of neo-Vedantins to the Hindu tradition came after a Western, Christian-influenced and English-language-based intellectual formation”. (9) In some ways these influences help shape the type of Hinduism that is produced by them. What some scholars refer to as “syndicated” Hinduism models this approach. A synthesis of what seems to be foundational across the board to all the diverse groups that comprise Hinduism.

The first prominent reformer is Rammohun Roy (1774-1833). He was the founder of the Brahmo – Sabha. He was trained in many languages and had “sympathies” with both Christian and Islamic thought. His attitude towards the Vedas is interesting and problematic. His commentators are very divided about his attitude as to whether the Vedas are divinely inspired or not. Regardless of this contention they agree that for Roy the doctrines of the Vedas are more important than the texts themselves. This openness allowed him to view non-Vedic literature with an eye to whether they taught the proper doctrines. So then he was willing to go far beyond the Vedas. In one of his earliest Persian tracts entitled Tuhfatu’l al-Muwahhidin (A Gift to Deists), Roy gives a very minimalist outline of Vedantic faith, which he saw as a general outline for all faiths. The outline included “the existence of God, which is derived from the design of the universe and the human being’s innate capacity to infer God from it, and a morally accountable soul existing after death, a belief necessary for the maintenance of social order. The minimal moral principle was a concern for the welfare of mankind.” (10) It is this matter of social welfare that will be a contentious point for the later Vedantic tradition. The rest of the ideas are very controversial depending upon how they are defined, but a classical Vedantist could say they agree with all of them, within their own understanding. Roy also championed the idea of brahmanistha grihastha (the pious householder), which went against the traditional idea that access to the Vedas should be denied to the majority of India’s people. This precedent marks many of the later reformers.

Ramakrishnan (1836-86) was a Hindu mystic who unlike most of the other reformers did not have Western training. He grew up in a Vaisnava family and then become a priest at a temple for Kali. Known for his fanatical devotion to Kali, he claimed to have an experience of Kali, which gave him a vision for the underlying truth of all religions. He became a bhakti devotee to Allah, Jesus, Buddha and a host of other religious figures. He did not travel far, had limited reading and writing skills but was very influential primarily because of his discipleship of Vivekananda. His version of Vedanta emphasized experience over Vedic texts, and this is a big break with both Sankara and Ramanuja. According to Swami Satprakashananda, Ramakrishnan simplified Vedanta into the following teachings:

  1. To realize God is the goal of human life.
  2. The methods of God-realization differ according to the seekers’ capacities and conditions of life.
  3. By following a progressive course of discipline an individual can proceed towards God from any sphere or level of life.
  4. Every religion is a pathway to God-realization.
  5. There should be harmony among the followers of different religions.
  6. God dwells within man as the inmost self.
  7. Man is to be served in the spirit of worshipping God.

One can immediately see some affinity with Sankara and also some with Ramanuja. With Sankara, Ramakrishnan affirms God-realization, but contrary to Sankara he affirms a more egalitarian approach to enlightenment. With Ramanuja he affirms the validity of many different paths, all of which shared their own reality as well as a central reality among them all. But as a modern Vedantist, he shows his desire to help the masses.

The next modern Vedantist we will look at is Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). His personal life is an interesting study in itself in that he started as a political activist and was involved in armed rebellion. But then in the midst of his life he switched profoundly, renounced violence and political agitation, and became a Guru. As Aurobindo started having mystical experiences and expanded his practice of yoga, he learned from his visions that India would be independent and there was no longer any need for armed resistance. His religious vision was still infused though with nationalistic language and purpose. He also developed a system of spiritual evolution, which paralleled biological evolution as described by Charles Darwin, which was also seen and accepted by Vivekananda, Yogananda and others.

This “ontological” structure included the following:

  1. Sachchidananda – the Absolute; existence, consciousness, bliss.
  2. Supermind – Dynamic aspect of the Absolute.
  3. Overmind – Mediating plane between Individual Mind and Supermind.
  4. Intuitive Mind
  5. Illumined Mind
  6. Higher Mind
  7. Mind – Capable of intellectual knowledge, moving towards intuitional knowledge, through the higher levels approaching Supermind.
  8. Soul or Psyche – Inner self, True Self, Essential Self.
  9. Life – Vital level, Organic level.
  10. Matter or Body – The Inconscient. (12)

Yoga for Aurobindo had a slightly different twist as well. Usually it is seen as a method of moksha, but for him it was a method of transformation. Following Ramanuja here, he saw the body not as something to be rejected or escaped from, but rather as a partial manifestation of the divine. Like the other reformers he affirms the Advaita traditions and scriptural standards but also adds some Tantric and Vaisnava texts as well. He also affirmed a universal religion. “A religion of humanity means the growing realization that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one, that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth, that the human race and the human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here.” (13)

Another more conservative voice among the reformers is Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Ramana taught a very conservative version of Advaita, along the lines of Sankara. Considered a Bhagavan (God) by many of his followers, he also stressed some non-Sankaran ideas. Like many of the modern reformers he stressed the value of personal experience over yoga or bhakti or even over textual knowledge. He also assumed a universalistic position in regards to the world’s religions. What makes this position rather controversial is that Ramana tried to argue that this sort of open-mindedness was also the position of Sankara himself. His back to the Vedas approach to his faith caused him to differ from other reformers in that he rejected social concern as a major issue for the enlightened one. His favorite question was to ask “Who am I?” and using that as a starting point for a discussion on the need for the individual to spend one’s life in self-discovery. His position on social concern can be seen when he would say things like “Because you wrongly identify yourself with the body, you see the world outside you and its suffering becomes apparent to you; but the world and its sufferings are not real. Seek the reality and get rid of this unreal feeling.” (14) He would also question the motives of some of his contemporaries who seemed so motivated by social issues.

Probably the best know modern Hindu reformer and also perhaps the first Hindu missionary to the west, was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Known for his quick wit, charm, and ability to captivate a crowd, Vivekananda become a world known figure when he appeared before the 1893 Parliament of World Religions. Having been a participant in the 1993 Parliament, I can note that he was in many ways the star of that second Parliament as well. He grew up in Calcutta and was extremely successful in school, astonishing his British teachers with his breadth of his readings and grasp of western philosophy. This educational emphasis makes it even more ironic that he became a disciple of someone like Ramakrishnan who had so little interest in education. One of the more frustrating things about Vivekananda was his maddening way of contradicting himself over the course of his life. For example even thought his master was supposedly everything to him, he belittles Ramakrishnan’s mystical experiences shortly after his death. Even more ironic when one considers that Vivekananda had his own mystical experience, which, like his master, convinced him of the oneness of all religions. (15)

Another example of his mercurial thought process was his understanding of Advaita. At some points in his life he was a classic non-dualist, sounding very similar to Sankara in his denunciation of idols. In a letter to an American disciple he wrote, “He who is eternal, without limits, omnipresent and all-knowing is not an individual person, but only a consciousness. You, I, and everyone else are but manifestations of that consciousness. Finally everyone must become his image in full…and then in reality everything will become one. Religion is nothing but this. The obsolete and lifeless rituals and notions regarding godhood are but ancient superstitions”. (16) But he also told a monastic order that they need to worship only Ramakrishna. (17) He told another friend “…I wish I could be an Advaitist, calm and heartless…” (18) His trip to America changed the world; his trip was an abject failure, and so on.

One persistent and consistent theme of Vivekananda was his interest in raising the status of the people in India. His trip to the west had inspired him and he was always commentating as to how the people in the west could benefit those in the east with their technological expertise while the people in the east could help those in the west with their spiritual expertise. One example of his egalitarian message was in his break with classic Advaita thought on the accessibility of Self-Knowledge. One of his admirers notes “he proclaimed this message of the divine nature of man to one and all, to the seekers of temporal values as well as to the seekers of Self-knowledge”. (19) This in Vivekananda’s mind would lead to societal liberation. His motto for his Ramakrishna Order was Atmano moksartham jagaddhitaya ca. (while striving for his own liberation the seeker should work for the good of the world as well). While his statements about Advaita would seem to go back and forth, his passion to bring about change in India never seemed to waver.

In so many ways modern India and therefore modern Advaita Vedanta, has been influenced by western thoughts. All of them and many others that we did not look at saw scriptural warrant, particularly from the Vedas for what they espoused. Many of them affirmed what their contemporaries denounced. For example many would affirm a “kindler, gentler” version of the caste system while others would denounce it for the social horror that it is. But the dilemma is so clearly illustrated here. How can one be Hindu and Indian and deny what has been a major part of the culture for so long? For many, the answer is that it is impossible. For Ramana, Maya is the key and one should not be attached to the current state of affairs, while for Vivekananda the Vedas can be shaped into such a way that social concern was always a part of Advaita! The contradictions continue to this day. As Fort points out “Ideas seen as laudable to the West, Such as this-worldly technological progress, valuing ecological harmony with nature, or caring for and actively providing humanitarian social service to all persons without distinction, are claimed to be present but go without support (or even reference) in the classical texts”. (20) When Paul Hacker surveyed ethical teachings in Sanskrit literature he found no evidence at all that the phrase “tat tvam asi” was ever used to justify practical ethical concerns, which was Vivekananda’s claim for years. (21) All of this aside, one thing that can be said about Advaita Vedanta as well as the whole of Hinduism, is that it has an amazing ability to adapt and change to the wishes of its practitioners. Called “the embrace that smothers” Hinduism has absorbed many “foreign ideas” before and made them her own and it is clear that the reformers of the past two centuries have done just that, and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.


  1. Rukmani, T.S. Shankaracharya. New Delhi, India. Publications Division, Ministry of Information, Government of India, 1994. P.1
  2. Satprakashananda, Swami. Swami Vivekananda’s Contribution to the Present Age. St. Louis, MO. The Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1978. P.112
  3. Clooney, Francis X. Theology After Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology. New York, NY, SUNY, 1993. P. 24
  4. Rukmani. P.60
  5. Menon, Y. Keshava. Allen, Richard F. The Pure Principle: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Shankara. Lansing, MI. Michigan State University Press, 1960. P.26.
  6. Vidyaratna, Kokileswar Sastri. An Introduction to Advaita Philosophy: A Critical and Systematic Exposition of Sankara School of Vedanta. Varanasi, India. Bharatiya Publishing House, 1979. P.173.
  7. Zacharias, Ravi. Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message. Nashville, TN. Word Publishing, 2000. P.119.
  8. Pappu, Rama Rao. Ed. Perspectives on Vedanta: Essays in Honor of Professor P.T. Raju. Leiden, The Netherlands. E. J. Brill, 1988. P.57.
  9. Fort, Andrew O. Jinvanmukti in Transformation: Embodied Liberation in Advaita and Neo-Vedanta. New York, NY. SUNY, 1998. P. 130. This book showed some very interesting material on the issue described in my paper. An excellent read.
  10. Rambachan, Anantanand. The Limits of Scriptures: Vivekananda’s Reinterpretation of the Vedas. Honolulu, HI. . University of Hawaii Press, 1994. P. 17
  11. Satprakashananda. P.76
  12. O’Connor, June. The Quest for Political and Spiritual Liberation: A Study in the Thought of Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Cranbury, NJ. Associated University Presses, 1977. P. 32.
  13. O’Connor. P.119
  14. Fort. P.143
  15. Sil, Narasingha P. Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment. Cranbury, NJ. . Susquehanna University Press, 1997. P104.
  16. Radice. William. Ed. Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism. Delhi, India. Oxford University Press, 1998. P. 2. I found this text very helpful on understanding some of the tensions in colonial India and how the reformers struggled with the bifurcation of their world.
  17. Radice. P.3
  18. Sen, Amiya P. Swami Vivekananda. London, England. Oxford University Press, 2000. P.97.
  19. Satprakashananda. P.96
  20. Fort. P.172
  21. Fort. P.177


  1. Beversluis, Joel.  A Sourcebook for the Community of Religions.  Grand Rapids, MI, The Sourcebook Project, 1993.
  2. Clooney, Francis X.  Theology After Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology. New York, NY,  SUNY,  1993.
  3. Flood, Gavin.  An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, England. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  4. Fort, Andrew O.  Jinvanmukti in Transformation: Embodied Liberation in Advaita and Neo-Vedanta. New York, NY. SUNY, 1998.
  5. Gupta, Bina.  Perceiving in Advaita Vedanta: Epistemological Analysis and Interpretation. Cranbury, NJ.  Associated University Presses, 1991.
  6. Menon, Y. Keshava.  Allen, Richard F.  The Pure Principle: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Shankara. Lansing, MI. Michigan State University Press, 1960.
  7. O’Connor, June.  The Quest for Political and Spiritual Liberation: A Study in the Thought of Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Cranbury, NJ. Associated University Presses, 1977.
  8. Pappu, Rama Rao. Ed. Perspectives on Vedanta: Essays in Honor of Professor P.T. Raju. Leiden, The Netherlands. E. J. Brill, 1988.
  9. Radice. William. Ed.  Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism. Delhi, India.  Oxford University Press, 1998.
  10. Rambachan, Anantanand.  The Limits of Scriptures: Vivekananda’s Reinterpretation of the Vedas. Honolulu, HI. .  University of Hawaii Press, 1994.
  11. Rukmani, T.S.  Shankaracharya. New Delhi, India. Publications Division, Ministry of Information, Government of India, 1994.
  12. Satprakashananda, Swami.  Swami Vivekananda’s Contribution to the Present Age. St. Louis, MO. The Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1978.
  13. Satprem.  Sri Aurobindo: or The Adventure of Consciousness. New York, NY. Harper & Row Publishers, 1968.
  14. Sen, Amiya P.  Swami Vivekananda. London, England. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  15. Sharma, Arvind.  The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta: A Comparative Study in Religion and Reason. University Park, PA. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
  16. Sil, Narasingha P.  Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment. Cranbury, NJ.  .  Susquehanna University Press, 1997.
  17. Smith, Huston.  The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco, CA. HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
  18. Vidyaratna, Kokileswar Sastri.  An Introduction to Adwaita Philosophy: A Critical and Systematic Exposition of Sankara School of Vedanta. Varanasi, India. Bharatiya Publishing House, 1979.
  19. Yogananda, Paramahansa.  Autobiography of a Yogi. Los Angeles, CA. Self-Realization Fellowship Publishers, 1959.
  20. Zacharias, Ravi.  Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message.  Nashville, TN. Word Publishing, 2000.

By Bill Honsberger


History and Development


Ancient religion of the Siberian tundra or another rip off of native peoples by white frauds?  This is one of the major questions in regards to the whole phenomenon collectively and perhaps egregiously called Shamanism.  While in some respects this religion or group of individual religions share some practices and ideas, in other ways the groups are very disparate.  Analogous to Hinduism, western scholars have tended to clump them together into a “family” of similar beliefs, but the reality of what it “really” is or who is an “authentic” spokesman/woman for Shamanism might be beyond accurate description.  Many people instantly compare them to the Native American Medicine man and while there is some important comparative activities, there are also distinctions as well.  Part of the problem stems from the fact that this series of faiths has come from a distinct series of oral traditions from virtually all over the world.  This means that there are no written records to show development and origination.  Some scholars think it is the original paleo – religion of all human beings.  Others resist the temptation to universalize it and point to its roots as primarily belonging to the Mongolian and Siberian tribes from thousands of years ago.  Even the term “Shaman” is disputed.  Is it a wise person or “one who knows” based on tribal languages or is it taken from a Sanskrit term for wondering monk?  Many other questions haunt the academic halls on these issues.

However from a Christian perspective there are some things that can be asserted about the collection or family of groups.  Whether it is a Shaman, or Medicine man or witch doctor or Bruja, there are parallel beliefs and activities.  Each group wherever found in the ancient or modern world, views the world as a place infused with spirits.  The ancient word “tenger” is believed to mean “the honoring of spirits”  Some have a hierarchy with a chief spirit, while others just see an equality between the spirits of the thunder and the spirits of  earthworms.  Much like the Hindu’s or so many other religions such as Taoism or Shinto, the Shamanic tribal religions see the world as a spiritual place and the Shaman’s role in  it the meditation and education of the local people with the spiritual reality.




One of the struggles with even beginning to accurately describe Shamanism, is again that it is completely an oral tradition.  Western scholars and new age flacks have been writing about in the past few decades, but the tradition itself was generally passed along by illiterate Shamans themselves.  One role of the Shaman was to tell the history of the tribe/people and thus many divergent stories are told, but none of them connect to any recorded history in the usual way.  In this sense then, the Shaman themselves become the authoritative source for the tribe, and their words are generally considered the final foundation for any understanding or situation that arises.




The Shaman traditions have no authoritative source which gives reference to Jesus.  Some deeply disputable claims have stated that this reference in this tradition or that group was referring to Jesus, but this states more about the modern interpreter than any authentic Shaman tradition – whatever that might mean.  More recent New Age type versions of Shamanism have tried to bring Jesus into the mix by inferring that Jesus is called a wise one and was able to heal and so on.


Supreme Being/God

Technically there is no Supreme being or God in Shamanism.  But many of the traditions do have a hierarchy with different gods being asserted as the high one or words to that effect.


Human Predicament

The human predicament is that we are all ignorant of the activities going on all around us at all times.  We may think that we are sick because of germs or bad food, but in the Shamanic world we are clueless about the spirits in the food, the animal we killed for sport, the plants we forgot to talk to before we harvested them.  All activities, especially the negative ones, are reminders that we are in the middle tier of the three tiered universe, and the spirits are constantly moving up and down through our level, granting either blessing or cursing.  The right Shamans, whether the black or white ones traditionally, can bring about desired results – healing, protection, cursing of an enemy, appeasing of an angry spirit, prosperity, a son, and so on.  This is done by different methods of inculcation on the part of the Shaman for the tribes people.  Another important role of the Shaman is that the dead are often confused where to go, and the Shaman will take the dead soul to the appropriate place.



The Shamanic tradition has no real sense of salvation in any analogous way to the Abrahamic religions nor is there a sense of escaping the illusory prison of Hindu and Buddhist faiths.  The world is what it is, much like in Shinto and Taoism, and it can be dealt with successfully by listening to the Shamans teachings and trusting the Shamans guidance in dealing with the multitude of spirits.  Much like the other eastern faiths, the spirits might be reincarnating and they might be just hanging around or somehow both.


Last Things

In the same way that other pagan faiths believe, there is no thought of a future time that is not similar to the present, or believed to be so in the past.  There are many cycles and the Shaman helps the believer endure and thrive in the present, guides them after death, and so on and so on.




Summary of Basic Beliefs

The Shamanic universe has three tiers.  Human beings and the world exist in the middle one.  The spirits that are ever present and in everything are also moving up and down through the middle tiers to the upper or lower tiers.  These spirits have the ability to curse and or bless, and they can be reasoned with.  The role of the Shaman is to get the spirits attention, address the situation at hand, and bring about some sort of satisfactory conclusion.  The Shaman has had a spiritual journey into the other world and thus has gained the wisdom to be found there.  The Shaman is the historian and cultural guidance counselor.  The Shaman is then the “wise one”, who knows the proper words, symbols, chants, songs, incantations, to work with the Spirits.  The Shaman is called into this role by the spirits themselves, usually through some extreme health/near death experience, or through visions that occur with the help of numerous drugs.  The Shaman uses bells or drums or other tools to invoke the spirits presence and the sacred signs on the drum are good examples of the prowess of the particular Shaman.  The Shaman also are known for sleight of hand tricks, ventriloquism and other “techniques” for showing their spiritual abilities.


Witnessing Tips

The interaction between the pagan world and the people of God (both Israel and the Christian church) is long and historic.  While there was some conversions of pagans to the Jewish faith, it would be the Christian faith to take this to an entirely different level.  When the apostles, in particular Paul, took the faith out from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the entire world, they encountered a number of varieties of pagan beliefs which in one sense all fell into one central category – they all believed in one way or another that there was a multitude of spiritual beings – angels, demons, the Jinn, the Baals, the gods of the different empires, whether Greek or Roman, or Persian, Egyptian and so on.  These spirits inhabited or infested all of nature.

The Apostle Paul encountered various pagan religions and sophisticated philosophies during his mission trips.  In Acts 17 Paul address the crowd of pagans and philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens.  Athens had noted for its numerous deities of every kind and stripe – as noted by one Roman wag who quipped that “it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens”.  Paul chooses to teach the assembled crowd the true nature of God and what that means.  Paul teaches them that one God created all the universe and that this God could not be localized in this or that building made of stone and wood.  He taught them that this God was not needy, in that he did not need to be cleaned or fed.  One can still see this in many religions around the world today.  But he affirmed that this God was not removed in a galaxy far away, but right here available to all.  This God gave all life to the world and from two people brought all people into existence.  Paul told them that one day this God would judge the entire world for their behavior.  He then told them of God’s Messiah Jesus, who had come and died for their sins and then was resurrected to life again.  All of these were a challenge to the treasured traditions of the audience.  Paul was not content to let the Athenians to treasure their own sacred tradition nor did he respect their ancient beliefs.  Rather Paul taught a biblical world view and trusted that the Holy Spirit would use those words to ignite the faith of members of the audience.  This is exactly what happened.  Some turned away, but some believed and others wanted to hear more.

In respect to all animistic or pantheistic or panentheistic cultures and beliefs, it is important to teach the true nature of God and show how this Biblical world view is not only rational but true to what the pagan peoples, in this case those following Shamans of one sort or another, already deeply know.  The same Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 2 that the Gentiles (goyim – pagans) have the commandments of God written on their heart.  They know it is wrong to murder, lie, steal, commit adultery and so on.  But like all pagan cultures they have suppressed the true nature of God and replaced it with pagan idolatry (Romans 1).  The important thing is to show how the teaching of the Shamans have led to so many egregious actions.  Modern Shamans – particularly the new age wannabees – have morphed the Shamanic traditions, ala Joseph Campbell and Prof. Gimbutas, into peace loving wizards who healed the earth and peoples and would never hurt a fly, or kill a person, or say mean things about women, homosexuals and so on.  But the reality of the situation is that the  great conquering Khans, who ruled that part of the world for over a thousand years, were some of the most bloodthirsty rulers in world history.  They were almost always guided by the Black Shamans.  Murder is ubiquitous in nature and therefore the spirits are always killing each other, or at least killing their “hosts”.  The Shamans have convinced their people that this is their tradition and therefore right, but deep inside their own conscience the people know it is wrong to murder.  God’s word can give them the perspective which matches their own conscience.  The Gospel can be given to people who understand what good and evil are.

Another important thing when witnessing to people in spiritualistic religions is that the Christian affirms and believes in the one true God, and is not or least should not be afraid.  Hundreds of times  in the Bible the believers are commanded not to be afraid.  Spiritistic cultures are virtually always driven by fear.  As we tell our missionaries before entering into pagan strongholds – our Father is in control outside that building, and He is in control inside that building.  We fear God alone and that fear brings about wisdom and holiness, and does not lead to personal or cultural paralysis, which is so common in the spiritistic world.


This does not mean being insulting to any one, but rather one can affirm the common image of God in all peoples – therefore murder of a rival tribe, or baby daughter or anyone else is an affront to the Holiness of God.  It must be strongly affirmed that God is not in nature, lest one is stuck with god killing god in nature or in Auschwitz or so on.  This view affirms the Shaman not as a holy or divine teacher, but as a creation of the true High God, who loves the Shaman and wants him and his people in His heavenly kingdom.  This is not cultural genocide, as decried by non-believing sociologists and anthropologists, but a loving teaching that has changed entire kingdoms into better places here and now in this world and brought fruit to the Kingdom of God as well.





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Jordan, Michael.  Encyclopedia of GODS – Over 2,500 Deities of the World.  Facts on File Publications.  New York, NY 1993.

Kehoe, Alice Beck.  Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking.  Waveland Press.  London, England.  2000.

Life Editorial Staff.ed. The World’s Great Religions.  Time Incorporated. New York, NY 1963.

Mather, George A., Nichols, Larry A.  Dictionary Of Cults, Sects, Religions And The Occult.  Zondervan Publishing House.  Grand Rapids, MI 1993

Novak, Philip.  The World’s Wisdom – Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions.  Harper/SanFrancisco.  New York, NY 1994

Parrinder, Geoffrey. ed.  World Religions – From Ancient History to the Present.  Facts on File Publications.  New York, NY.  1971

Pelikan, Jaroslav. ed.  The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought.  Little, Brown and Company.  Boston, MA 1990

Scott, Gini Graham.  Shamanism and Personal Master, Using Symbols, Rituals, and Talismans to Activate the Power Within You.  Paragon House.  New York, NY

Smith, Huston.  The Illustrated World’s Religions – A Guide To Our Wisdom Traditions.  Harper/San Francisco. New York, NY 1994

The New Age Movement/New Spirituality
By Bill Honsberger
History and Development

There is nothing “new” about the New Age.  The “New Spirituality”?  Old news.  Just into “Spirituality”?  Been there done that- for thousands of years.  Why then all the flash and hype?  In America, people figured out long ago that promotion and marketing seems to be the only thing that matters.  Americans after all will buy rocks if they are packaged as pets!  While this is provably so, it still seems trivial.  But in actuality it points to a major tool of the NAM.  The preferred name among the more intellectual people in the NAM is “the perennial philosophy”.  This is a way of saying that the ideas we are going to talk about have been around forever.  They are literally perennially so.  Whether one listens to Joseph Campbell’s PBS program The Power of Myth or reads Ken Wilbur or David Spangler, Marilyn Ferguson and so on, the motif is that these ideas are truly eternal and transformative.  Once heeded they will literally bring about a revolution of the human race and even the universe.  A revolution where all is god and all is one – no more war, crime, racism, environmental destruction, sexism and so on.

In her autobiographical book The Hunger of Eve, futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard outlines both her journey from nominal Christian to New Ager while at the same time showing her departure from her “boring” husband and marriage, to a much more liberated view on sex.  The cover of the books shows an apple with a bit out of it and inside the apple one sees the universe.  The imagery is supposed to reflect the “true” import of the Genesis 3 account.  According to Barbara, Lucifer is the good guy of the story.  Lucifer wanted us to discover our true “higher” selves.  When Eve bit the apple – she opened up the universe for all of us.  Jehovah of course then is the bad guy who jealously wanted us to keep us from our true selves.  No explanation is given for this – it is simply built into the interpretation that Jehovah is evil and wants us to see ourselves as sinful, limited human beings.  This gives us a picture of an ancient Gnostic idea coming back into vogue – the evil Jewish God Jehovah who made this prison (world) and trapped the divine sparks/aeons in matter.

This leads us to an understanding of what the NAM really is – a pastiche or smorgasbord of ancient ideas, which have been re-imagined, re-cast, re-packaged, edited and shaped for modern and postmodern consumption.  And consumption is a big part of the picture – Between sales of crystals, books, Runes, wholistic healing techniques, yoga classes, psychic readings and so on – the NAM is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.  While appealing to ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, Western practitioners have morphed ideas that have traditionally been wrapped in asceticism and transformed them into a materialist marketers dream; Buddhist monks being used to sell everything from Jeep Cherokees to mutual funds.

One could argue that the birth of the NAM in the United States really began with a tremendous outbreak of cults and small sects in the 19th century.  Within a time frame of roughly thirty years, numerous groups such as the Mormons, Adventists, Spiritualists, Oneida, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others began out of the backwash of the 2nd Great Awakening.  The Transcendentalist writers were reading the ancient Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita and many philosophers and thinkers in the United States and Europe such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Shiller, and Schopenhauer were entranced by the same text as well as Buddhist literature that was coming to Europe due to the British colonization of India.  In the 1870 – 1880s groups like the Theosophical Society (Madame Blavatsky), Anthropomorphical Society (Rudolph Steiner), Unity Movement (Charles and Myrtle Fillmore) and especially the Christian Science Movement (Mary Baker Eddy) started attracting large groups of people.  Collectively known as “New Thought”, these groups were drawing much interest on the Eastern seaboard among the cultured elites of the larger cities.  One dramatic event, which galvanized the New Thought communities, was the appearance of Vivekananda – the first Hindu missionary to the west in 1893.  Trained in the Advaita Vedanta tradition (Non-Dual Knowledge) Vivekananda had a vision of the goddess Kali that taught him of the oneness of all religions.  He was received at the first Parliament of World Religions as a huge celebrity.  Much the same way the Dalai Llama is treated today, the cultural elites, media and intelligentsia of the day saw in him the dawning of a new exciting transformation from decadent Christianity to the Spirituality of Human Potentiality.

Next generation spinoffs such as Mind Science (Ernest Holmes) and a rising underground interest in witchcraft (Gerald Gardner) and Satanism (Alistair Crowley) cropped up in the 1940’s – 1950’s.  Scientology and the introduction of Zen to the west crowned the new turns in the late 1950’s.  The stage was now set for the true cultural shift which marked the turn away from Judeo/Christian thought to a whole “new” world.

The song that best literally embodies the hopes and aspirations of the birth of the modern NAM in the 1960’s was the iconic Age of Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension.  Seen by the nominal secular and Christian culture as hippie fluff – the words reflect serious theology to the true believer:

When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars

Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius, Aquarius! Aquarius!

Harmony and Understanding – Sympathy and trust abounding

No more falsehoods or derisions – Golden living dreams of visions

Mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation

Aquarius! Aquarius!


Astrology, crystals, Hopi calendar date – setting, and the thought that now a movement was born which would lift the culture out of the despair and futility of rampant materialism and cold war fears that had marked the country since the end of WW II.

The Cultural Revolution has so many tributary streams that it is nearly impossible to address them all in a short work but some of the main contributors must be examined.  The drug movement, broached by the Beatniks of the 1950s, became a monstrous issue in the 60s.  It was led by the Pied Piper of Harvard University Timothy Leary, who coined the phrase “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out”.  His partner at Harvard in the drug experiment program, Richard Albert, was disturbed at the side effects of the new experimental drug LSD and left for India to find a different path.  Coming back many years later as Baba Ram Dass, he wrote the bestseller Be Here Now with the knowledge gained in the east that Mindful meditation will bring about the desired result without the destructive side effects.  The desired result was the bypassing of the conscious state of mind, a literal breakthrough to the “other side” as sung by Jim Morrison of the Doors.

It is important to remember that even thought it was Christian pastors who were so often at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, that Christianity was increasingly seen as the “Old Age” by many important voices in the Culture.  Weakened internally by the race issues which had become so divisive up to and after the Civil War of 1860-1865 and by the attack on the Bible by higher critical scholars in Europe and the formerly Christian schools of the US such as Harvard and Yale, and externally by the onslaught of Darwinism which began with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 and soon spread through all the University programs, Christianity was hopelessly split into primarily liberal and fundamentalist camps.  Tired of the hypocrisy that was so often seen, especially in the racism and endless fighting among the denominations, thousands of young American and Europeans left their homes and their nominal Christian background and went to Tibet, Nepal and of course India seeking a new way of looking at the human condition.  Along with this, UCLA professor Carlos Castenada, whose books of his journeys with a Shaman (Mexican medicine man) who introduced him, through peyote and mescaline –to the altered state of consciousness sought now by so many.  At the same time, many Asian Gurus or teachers, saw an opportune time to come to the west and expand their following.  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Mahara Ji, Sun Yung Moon and many others came and soon attracted millions of followers.  The Christianity of the west was truly decadent and often didn’t even realize how vast the cultural shift was.  Mahesh had learned the true secret of spreading his Advaita Vedanta faith in America – packaging.  Removing the Ashram (community) the robes and other outward trappings so often associated with Hindu practice and thought, Maharishi founded a movement that came to be known as simply Transcendental Meditation.  Chant twice a day, for twenty minutes a day, and all your problems and societies problems as well will soon disappear.  Presenting this as a non-religious practice, Maharishi’s marketing strategy was brilliant – by the mid 1970’s TM was being offered in schools, YMCAs and churches.

One of the Maharishi’s most adept students was Werner Earnhardt, who learned both the teaching and the marketing techniques and founded EST or Earnhardt Seminar Training.  Bizarre bathroom stories aside – Earnhardt successfully positioned his teachers ideas as Human Potentiality.  Knowing your true inner divinity and shedding all the Christian hang-ups about sin and limitation, will bring about business and personal success.  Soon Nightingale Conant was selling tapes and programs over how chanting and meditation will improve your sales by 20%!  Led by popular educator and author Jack Canfield, schools were now being introduced to the wonders of meditation and channeling.  Guided imagery and visualization techniques designed to suppress the conscious mind were all the rage.  The irony of mindlessness being taught by the public school system was not seen then and probably not now as well.  In Medicine and Nursing, wholistic/holistic techniques were being introduced to the culture through seminars and university programs.  Acupuncture, Reiki, Aryuvedic, Neuro-linguisic Programming, Osteopathic, Homopathic and many other alternatives cures now wrestled with traditional allopathic or western medicine for the big dollars.  This type of influence can be seen in virtually every part of culture.  Today it is ubiquitous – Churches doing yoga and Buddhist chanting, new age gurus raising money for aids patients – syncretism is the norm.


The NAM is open to numerous scriptures from various religions or none at all.  Kabalistic Jewish writings, Sufi Muslim writers, “ancient runes” off the counter at Borders or a poetry book might all serve as inspirational.  Many see the word of mediums or channelers as the equivalent of scriptures.  Messages from ancient warriors from Atlantis or aliens from different universes like the Pleiades are all authoritative to someone.  Some literally listen to their pets or the “voice of the mother earth” as heard in a waterfall or some other phenomenon of nature.  For many others psychic readings are authoritative and can come through astrology or tarot, crystals, aura fields and innumerable other potential paths of “knowledge”.  As mentioned before, some are inspired by actual religious texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Lotus Sutras or the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection, the interest in Gnostic literature such as The Gospel of Thomas or the Shepherd of Hermes has dramatically increased.


The figure of Jesus is a controversial one within the NAM.  Some see Jesus as a master magician, others as a “cosmic buffoon” for thinking he could pay for others karma.  Ernest Holmes of the Mind Science group pictures Jesus not as “the Way” as orthodox Christianity would see him, but rather as “the Way Shower”.  In this role Jesus becomes a teacher of the esoteric wisdom who discovered his own divinity and inspires us to likewise discover our own divinity ourselves.   Many channeled books such as The Aquarian Gospel by Levi Dowling, or books like The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicolas Notovitch see Jesus as a guru who traveled to India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Egypt, etc who learned the perennial philosophy and then returned to Israel to teach it.  As a side note, it is interesting to note that all of these contradictory accounts claimed that the source of the information is the Akashic records – an intra- dimensional records hall of sorts.

For Roman Catholic nee Episcopalian priest Matthew Fox, Jesus represents an individual who discovered his connection to the Cosmic Christ – the divine source of all life and power in/of the universe.  As such Jesus is not the Christ per se, but only an individual just like any of us and therefore each person can also be the “Christ”. Deepak Chopra, the Hara Krishna’s and other Hindus often picture Jesus as an Avatar, an embodiment of the divine Brahman.  Despite all the wide range of views there are some commonalities; Jesus is not the unique Son of God, or the 2nd person of the Trinity and Jesus is definitively not the only way to God.

 Supreme Being – God

This is one of the key ideas of the NAM- the Question of God.  The simplest way of understanding this is to define monistic pantheism.  Central to ancient Advaita Vedanta, monism is the belief that there literally is only one thing in existence anywhere.  Pantheism is the belief that all that is  – wherever it is – is divine.  So all is one and that one thing is God.  In Hindu parlance this is Brahman, which permeates the entire universe.  The atman is the individual piece, which is to be seen as part of the whole.  One of the very popular ancient illustrations of this is that of the ocean.  The Ocean is Brahman, and each individual drop is atman.  So either God is “behind” the universe, or God is embodied in the universe.  Similar to the conversation within the Advaita tradition of old, there are New Agers who agree with Shankara (d.732 a.d.) who had the strongest view of Maya –the dream of the mind, which is ultimately an illusion.  The world of perception is a false world.  The underlying unity of the world is hidden by Maya and the different paths off the wheel of Samara (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth).   Another advaitist was Ramanuja (d.1137 a.d.) who had to “rescue” idolatry from the strong view of Maya advocated by Shankara.  Ramanuja posited a view that argued for value in the practice of idolatry and there was some limited reality in the world, but like Shankara still believed that ultimately all was illusion.

As described commonly by New Agers today, God is a force or energy field or consciousness within the universe or something similar.  God is present in all things (panentheism) and or God is all things or God is the animating force of the universe.  It all depends upon whom you talk to.  This is seen as a liberating view, literally a Gospel/good news by people within the movement.  There would be no more war or crime or sexism or racism if we all just understood our inner connection.  Why don’t we?  It is because we have gotten caught up in the illusory world and haven’t experienced the oneness of all things yet.  Although Brahman or the one or the “force” of George Lucas’s Star Wars, was seen classically in Vedic literature as Nirguna Brahman or God without attributes, in the mind of most New Agers the divine is seen as the literal embodiment of love.  Marianne Williamson and Neil Donald Walsch both stress this point.  The world of pain and suffering is merely an illusion. The true world, which cannot be understood logically or found through the rational mind, is instead experienced through one of the many different mystical means already mentioned.   So this is a syncretistic meld of one aspect of Christian belief with an ancient Hindu thought.  Included in this “God” who is pure love is the notion that God does not judge, as the reality of the world is mere perception.  Recently an idea, which has become popularized in The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, is the idea that the divine is sympathetic with our desires and if one knows the proper formula one can get whatever one wants in life.

The Human Predicament

The predicament is that the Old Age or Christian era, has held people in its evil sway, teaching that humans are limited sinful beings.  For two thousand years the true nature of the universe has been hidden by the malevolent Christian view.  This crippling thought has separated God from nature and man from man and man from nature.  The “sin” of separation had permeated the universe and kept us from our true higher potential.  The false self, limited and ignorant of its true capacity, perpetuates this sin.  This false self is the cause of all negative fruit or karma.  This has led to war, murder, rape, and so on.  From this perspective it is inferred that all negative karma or fruit is merely part of the illusion.  Similar in spirit with the Gita, Neil Donald Walsch argues that even Hitler is now enlightened and part of the divine source.


Almost as offensive as Jesus being the only way to God, is the idea that there is something wrong with us, that we are sinners.  Most New Agers that one meets at any given psychic fair were all raised in some sort of Christian church and have at least an idea of the Christian teaching of original sin or depravity.  Therefore there is no need to be saved from Hell or from sin or anything else.  As mentioned above our real problem is ignorance of our true or higher self and thus the solution to the problem is enlightenment – a higher understanding of our true nature and selves.  Similar to the Jnana or the knowledge path of Hinduism, once one discovers the true picture of reality and the universe, then all wars, crime, etc will end – the Dawn of the Age of Aquarius.  For many new age prophets, then will be accomplished through the principle of “Critical Mass”.  A popular illustration of this is the 99/100 monkeys.  As the myth goes, scientists were trying to teach monkeys how to wash their tubers before they ate them.  They tried with a handful of monkeys and got nowhere.  They continually added more monkeys 10 at a time until they reached 90 monkeys.  Then they added one at a time until finally they were at 99 monkeys.  Still the monkeys showed no inclination to learn.  Then the 100th monkey was added and everything changed.  Critical Mass has been broached and the monkeys all responded en masse.  Each of the monkeys started washing their tubers and teaching their young to do the same.  The moral of the store is clear.  When enough people become aware of their true higher selves, the world will achieve critical mass and a massive change of consciousness will occur and all will be right in the universe.


As seen earlier The New Age literally is the end time scenario for the NAM.  According to most astrologers, each of the ages is two thousand years old.  The last age is called the Pisces age.  The fish symbol is one of the earliest Christian symbols so New Agers postulate that fact as the supposed proof of their astrological projections.  Others like an old Hopi Indian legend that the year 2012 will be the year that the change happens.   Whatever version of the story one reads, once the Christian hindrance is removed, Paradise will blossom.

Witnessing Tips

Dr. Gordon Lewis in his excellent Decide for Yourself, emphasized the need to establish common ground with those one is witnessing to.  The thing that all people have, regardless of culture or religious persuasion, is the conscience that God gave them according to Romans 2.  When people have committed to the idea that the universe is God or that the universe is an illusion, then this puts them into a logical contradiction.  Either way they have no answer for the moral convictions and causes that they are passionate about.  I call this “the Hitler pill” and I want them to swallow it.  If the universe is the divine, then was “God” just killing “God” at Dachau?  Or in Rwanda or Columbine or Darfur?  If yes then there should not be any moral outrage.  God is just at “play”.  (The ancient Hindus called this idea Lila or the dance).  On the other hand the universe is just an illusion, then again there is no cause for moral outrage at any of tragedies mentioned above.   Yet New Agers are activists; they want to save the environment or the whales or stop the war or a trillion other causes.  This is often where you can witness by seeing their very real moral concern (e.g. a world without war) as a serious issue, but then contrasting it with their worldview.  If the world is an illusion then peace is just as illusory as anything else and has no more positive moral standing than war!  In this sense the New Ager is very close to the Kingdom of God.  They can see the evil/sin in the world but they cannot consistently define it and their solution (enlightenment) tells them that the world is illusory and love.  So it is love killing love in Kampuchea.  Any way you look at this the problem persists.  So it is critical to get them to accept the reality of evil, because then you can talk about sin and evil in meaningful ways.  Once that is established you can then make the case for the Cross-as God’s means for dealing with the very real evil in a very real world.   If there is no sin, then there is no need to be saved.  If there is no need to be saved, then there is no need for a savior.  If there is no need for a Savior – then Christ truly was a “cosmic buffoon”.  But if there really is evil then one can build a solid and reasonable case for the cross, for the display of God’s holiness (in that God takes evil seriously) and for God’s mercy (in that God takes his love for us seriously) and the cross displays both.









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By Bill Honsberger
History and Development
Ancient Chinese Medicine?  Or bizarre suicidal cult?  Or perhaps a political revolt against an unpopular dictatorship.  Or maybe just a quiet peaceful meditative technique which will heal the world?  One could argue that the Falun Gong could and have been described in all these ways, depending upon whom one talks to.  The question then is, which is the most accurate way of describing this religious movement and how can Christians understand and witness to members of the group?Falun Gong at its inception in 1992 FG was one of thousands of Qi Gong groups in China,  but later it dropped its registration and is at odds with the national organization.  It has made claims that it is the most advanced version of Qi Gong and does not charge a fee to practice, something that also goes against the grain of the traditional Qi Gong groups.  Qi Gong is a meditative technique that emphasizes rhythmic breathing practices and coordinated movements which are believed to bring about harmony and healing in the person and in the universe.The founder and lightning rod of Falun Gong is Li Hongzhi.  A trumpet player by profession, Li says that he was chosen by Masters of Qi gong and Taoism who recognized in him the potential of being a great Master.  Many years later Li founded his own Qi gong school and put some personal twists from Buddhists and Taoist sources.  When the school grew in popularity, Li chose to withdraw from the Qi Gong national association and and started making stronger statements about his particular elite status as a teacher.  More recently he declared that a “supreme being” or the “gods” had selected him as a person of great character and capability to bring about the salvation of humanity and the world.  This reflects some of the difficulty in properly classifying the Falun Gong movement and its leader – chosen by the “gods” with more authority and insight than Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, or common person who just wants to help people.  One can find statements describing both and depending upon the situation the practitioners can represent in either way.After finding tremendous success within the larger QI Gong movement that was immensely popular in China following the communist massacre at Tiananman Square, Li exercises were being followed by millions of people including top communist officials.  This set off a reaction by the Chinese government to persecute the new movement, which caused the Falun Gong followers to protest very publicly, which caused a new wave of imprisonments and beatings and on and on to this day.  Li fled China and moved to New York City where he still directs the movement and gives lectures in the United States and other parts of the world.

Falun Gong practitioners claim that this is not a religion or cult.  They claim that the movement is about self-improvement which comes through the cultivation of Truth-Compassion-Tolerance, which are the fundamental values of the universe.  There are no priests or structure like normal religious movements.  Li Hongzhi is merely an ordinary man who was gifted in certain teaching techniques.  Critics maintain that even though no fees are charged, Li lives the life of a rich man and has gained vast wealth through the copyright to the books and the gifts of the donors.  Li makes claims that he is a divine being with the ability to personally heal through the power of his Qi any of his followers.  He also claims that aliens from outer space are all over the world and that they are disguised as humans and are trying to displace the human race on planet earth.  Other critiques include Li’s prohibition against modern medicine, homosexuality and rock and roll.  One of the more disturbing statements from Li is his claim that the gods have separate heavens for each of the races.  Therefore all mixed race children will have no where to go and all mixed race marriages are wrong.


There are two formal documents that are treated as Scriptures by the Falun Gong.  The first is the “Zhuan Falun (Revolving the Law Wheel).  This is a collection of statements, aphorisms and convoluted versions of Buddhist and Taoist statements.  The majority of the texts include his version of the “cultivation practice”, which in the Qi Gong schools amounts to spiritual, moral and physical purity and salvation through the practice of the techniques.  Li says “One literally cultivates their qualities like a garden, planting seeds of goodness and not letting that goodness be damaged by circumstances or events”  (Introduction of Falun Dafa,” http://www.falundafa.org)Published in its third edition in 1995, Li constantly refers people to the text which has all the wisdom from the masters of the ages.

The second text is “China Falun Gong”.  This text contains illustrations and explanations of how to do the meditations and the exercises.  The five main movements are accompanied by Chinese music and involve different lotus postures and hand movements.   Two of the five involve sitting silently in meditative posture.

There have been other books and numerous lectures by Li all of which are revered, but the first two are critical.On a practical level, the followers of Falun Gong take whatever Li says in his different lectures as being on the level of the texts.  In this sense they have a “living prophet” system similar to the Latter Day Saints, which may at differing times overrule earlier understandings or pronouncements.


Like other asian religions, Falun Gong has no specific traditional understanding of Jesus.  Li has been known to refer to Jesus as someone who is on the level of Tathagata, which is to say that Jesus is comparable to the Buddha.  Li has placed himself in numerous conversations as saying that the “gods” had chosen him and that his level of “cultivation” was far above the Buddha.  Therefore Li is more important than Jesus in Falun Gong teaching.

Supreme Being

There is both no god and innumerable gods in the teaching of Li Hongzhi.  His Taoist roots would teach him that the Qi or divine energy is in all things flowing through the universe.  His version of Buddhism seems to be in the Mahayana vein, with numerous Buddhas, Bohdisattvas and other “gods” everywhere.  At this point Li’s cosmology is very unclear – there are gods and he is sent by them, yet he also has referred to himself as a divine being. There are other members of the movement who refer to Li as their “creator”.  In other settings he calls himself an “ordinary human being”.

Human Predicament

According to Li, mankind on earth is quite literally the trash of the universe.  All the human beings here have reincarnated here from all over the multiple dimensions.  The human race has been destroyed 81 times before and without the personal intervention of Li Hongzhi, the race will be destroyed again.  Li said ” If you look around, you will find that the human world today is extremely terrible, full of vicious persons…The human race is deteriorating, and there are devils everywhere.  The human race, while developing to the present stage, has become distorted and is full of evil.  Hence, the gods have completely lost confidence in mankind.  This is one of the major reasons why the gods do not care about human beings any more…The earth serves as the rubbish heap of the universe.”  (facts.org.cn) Li also claims that there are aliens who are disguised as humans who are trying to take over the world as well.


Given the earth’s predicament and Li’s claim as one sent by the gods, it should not be surprising that only Li and Falun Dafa can save the world.  Hongzhi said that “Falun Dafa has, for the first time in the history of human kind, enlightened human beings to the characteristics of the universe (Law of Buddha), which is tantamount to providing mankind with a ladder to Heaven.  Now I am the only person in the world who is spreading the orthodox Law of Buddha…propagating the fundamental law of the universal, which you cannot read in any book, past or present, Chinese or foreign.”  He also said “I am here to save you from this miserable world.  If I cannot save you , there is no one in the world able to do so…My law bodies (his bodies are in multiple dimensions!) are so numerous that they are beyond calculation.  Therefore, I can look after as many people as I want, maybe the entire human race”.  (facts.org.cn)

While the group may advertise itself to the western world as a non-religious group intending to improve the world, there is no doubt as to the cultic nature of the group and the bizarre arrogant teachings of the leader.

Last Things

As mentioned before, Li has claimed that the earth has been destroyed many times before, with only a few survivors each time.  One example of these statements is “The human race has experienced many destructive catastrophes.  The next destruction – complete destruction – will come soon.  It will be destruction of both the form and the spirit, and will be really horrible…I found that mankind has experienced 81 calamities in the past, and each time there were only a few people who survived”  (facts.org.cn)  According to some of his other speeches the earth was supposed to be destroyed again in 2006 and only his personal intervention put that disaster off for another thirty years.

Summary of Basic Beliefs

  1. Falun Gong is “an ancient self-improvement practice of mind, body and spirit guided by the principle of the universe – Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance.” (Falun Gong Flyer – SOS Urgent Call)  These three literally comprise the fundamental nature of the cosmos.
  2. The Master Li Hongzhi is the only teacher within the movement.  He was selected by the gods for his wisdom and insight into the Cultivation (spiritual and physical and emotional development) into xinxing (a culmination of numerous spiritual behaviors such as patience, making sacrifices, enlightenment, tolerance) which will bring about  a rise in energy (Qi) potency which will cause the matter in the body to transform.  This brings about healing and material success and other benefits.  He is at once an ordinary human being and a divine being able to interact and draw power in from innumerable dimensions and universes.  He can heal, destroy and protect the earth from aliens.  He seems to have a special hatred for mixed race children and condemns them to a separate future from those others who survive the coming destruction.
  3. There are five exercises which are supplemental to the cultivation of xinxing.  These include; “Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands, Falun Standing stance, Penetrating the Cosmic Extremes, Falun Heavenly Circuit and Way of Strengthening Divine Powers.  All of these are intended to develop Qi and draw in the Qi from numerous universes and dimensions.  The cultivation techniques will transform both xinxing and karma.
  4. The center of the power is located in the abdomen of the believers.  Master Li claims that he puts the Falun (law wheel – symbolized by several swastikas and yin-yang symbols in Falun Gong literature) into the practitioners’ abdomen.  There it spins with the Qi energy developed through cultivation and the exercises which are collectively called the Gong.
  5. The group puts out a tremendous amount of information particularly through numerous websites both official and unofficial.  A huge marketing effort for the past fifteen years has gone forward to convince other world governments to pressure the Peoples Republic to soften its position on the group.  Many of the followers wear their persecution as a badge of identity and honor.

Witnessing Tips

As we would witness to anyone in any religion or nonbeliever, we should speak the truth in love to them.  Members of Falun Gong are just regular people who have turned to this group to solve the their problems, give them meaning and purpose and identity and sometimes seek out physical and emotional healing.  The overwhelming number of people involved with the group are Chinese, which is belied by so much of their literature which always has pictures of western people prominently figured. The group’s identity has been formed by the combination of spiritual teachings and political persecution in its native country.  The followers tend to look at the world through what I call “Li Hongzhi” eyeglasses, much like the LDS look at the world through Joseph Smith eyeglasses and so on.  It is critical then to talk about Li and  his many of his bizarre teachings so that one can get the FG practitioner to look at the Bible and understand their need for Jesus.

If the follower is not Chinese, I would start with Li’s more bizarre statements about space aliens, Earth as a garbage dump and especially his views on race and mixed race children.  All of these ideas are not featured prominently in their literature and it is possible that the follower has not even heard the teachings.  All of these ideas are generally repulsive to most people today.  As a father of many Asian children, and the grandfather of two mixed race grandchildren, I know how offensive this idea is to most people one might talk to.  The fact that God is no respecter persons and that the Bible teaches that all races from one couple, lines up well with how most people in the world think, especially in the western world.  Li’s views on race might have sold better a few generations ago, but are repugnant today.  Racism has always been repugnant in God’s eye.

There are many people who do believe in space aliens, but I would ask the follower to give you one piece of actual evidence that doesn’t seem like it was dreamed up in an episode of “X Files”.  The follower also has been trained to think that the idea of the Qi and QI healing are all scientifically proven now, but actual evidence outside of true believers is non-existent.  The Qi is a matter of faith; no actual evidence backs this up.  But with both space aliens and the Qi the lack of evidence seems not to disturb the individual believer.  I think this is what spiritual blindness truly looks like.  When you meet smart people who believe virtually any insane and/or contradictory notion, then you know it is not about mere rationality.  Therefore always remember that this is a spiritual battle and that we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will reach through the hard heart and the foolish teachings to reach the follower of Falun Gong.

If the person is Chinese than I will emphasize a different approach.  The FG movement claims to embody the wisdom of both Taoism and Buddhism, but it seems that most of its beliefs have nothing to do with the Four Fold noble path of Buddhism, but is more in line with traditional Taoism and its pagan underpinnings.  But I have used Buddhist teachings to interact with people in the group.  Especially since the group is so passionate about its political situation with the Chinese Government.  I have told them that I agree that the Chinese government has treated the FG movement badly and that no person should be physically or emotionally or politically mistreated for their beliefs or non-beliefs.  This  always gets them to warm up to the conversation as they sense a fellow traveler on something they are driven by.  Then I ask them what they think of the Buddha’s teachings on annatta or non self.  If there is no self then there really is no reason to be upset about Chinese government brutality.  I ask them about the Buddha’s acceptance of the Hindu teaching of maya – that the physical world is merely a dream and unreal.  If this is so, then the FG person should understand that there is no Chinese government, no Li Hongzhi, no persecuted members and so on.  The FG follower seeks to develop Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance, but none of these are meaningful in any way if the world is not real.  This will send the follower into a frenzy of frustration.  Usually they end up denying the teaching of the Buddha as explained by you.  So we affirm the opposite: if the world is real and the persecutions are real, then the teaching of Karma tells us that the practitioner must have deserved their terrible fate, as karma dictates all outcomes in the world.  If this is denied then we are in good shape because the average follower still has the conscience the Lord gave them (Romans 2) and knows that it is wrong to torture and brutalize prisoners of conscience.  If this is the case then there are some behaviors which are absolutely right and their contraries must be absolutely wrong.  (e.g. It is always wrong to imprison, beat and persecute prisoners of religious conscience!) They will agree with this, but their combination of Buddhism and Taoism gives them no foundation or reasons for this belief.  The Tao (way of the river) flows through all things and one must practice wu wei (non active non thought) and merely go with the flow.  If that is the case then Taoism precludes the FG protests and makes the complaints merely swimming against the flow, which is discouraged in Taoist thought.  Yet they still know that it is wrong to beat and torture people.  Yes it is – but not based on Buddhism or Taoist thought.  It is wrong on Biblical grounds however.  We can show them that the Bible says that all of us are created in God’s image (Genesis 1-3) and as such we are commanded not to kill or beat or treat anyone in a manner which takes away their status given by God.  In the US we refer to “unalienable” rights.  These are rights that are given by the Creator and cannot be taken away by any government or people.  Jesus taught that it is wrong to attack even ones enemies.  One must forgive them instead.  Real Buddhism and real Taoism deny that there is any ultimate good or evil.  The divine is either not real, or embodied in the universe which means that the Chinese government is also filled with the Qi and this is just the divine torturing the divine!  None of this makes any sense.

The Falun Gong follower knows that there is a spiritual side of humanity.  They know that there really is a moral side to the universe.  They not must realize the if Li’s teachings are based upon the Buddhist and Taoist religion, then everything their conscience is telling them – is not real.  They should just do the exercises and go with the flow.  But they cannot and this is where we tell them about the real reason for the problems with the world  – that the Chinese government is made up of sinners.  And that all of us are sinners just the same.  It is not space aliens or inter-dimensional beings who destroy us – it is us.  We ran over the protestors with tanks in Tiananman Square.  We brutalized each other during the Nanking slaughter by the Japanese.  And not only governments, but each of us as persons have turned away from the true Creator of the universe, Jehovah, and has turned on each other, raping, lying, stealing, dishonoring our parents, adultery, murder and the rest.

Since all of us stand guilty of these things, and the FG follower knows that they want to be different from what they are (their interest in self-improvement is what they thought they were getting in FG in the first place!) then we tell them about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus died for their sins and desires to change them both physically and spiritually.  Their own efforts have not stopped the persecutions.  The Qi power was ineffectual in stopping the deaths of their fellow practitioners.  But the Christian can tell them that a day is coming when the Lord will make right all the injustice and sins, and that all of His children, regardless of race or caste or sex, can live with the Lord eternally.  This takes their sinful version of right desires and casts them in the only light that makes sense.

Falun Gong Bibliography

Bach, Marcus.  Major Religions of the World.  Abingdon Press.  New York, NY 1959

Chang, Maria Hsia.  Falun Gong: The End of Days.  Yale University Press.  New Haven CN. 2004

Chen, Nancy. Breathing spaces: qigong, psychiatry, and healing in China.  Columbia University Press.  New York, NY 2003

Cunningham, Lawrence S., Kelsay, John.  The Sacred Quest – An Invitation to the Study of Religion. 3rd Edition.  Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ 2002

Falun Dafa Practioners.  Falun Dafa: Peaceful Journey of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.  Falun Dafa Books 1st Ed.  2000

Gaskell, G. A. Dictionary Of Scripture And Myth. Dorset Press. New York, NY 1988

Harpur, James.  The Atlas Of Sacred Places – Meeting Points of Heaven and Earth.  Henry Holt and Company.  New York, NY.  1994

Hexham, Irving.  Concise Dictionary of Religion. Intervarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL1993

Hongzhi, Li.  Zhuan Falun. Falun Dafa Books.  1996

Hongzhi, Li.  Falun Gong. Falun Dafa Books 4th ed. 2001

Jordan, Michael.  Encyclopedia of GODS – Over 2,500 Deities of the World.  Facts on File Publications.  New York, NY 1993

Life Editorial Staff.ed. The World’s Great Religions.  Time Incorporated. New York, NY 1963

Mather, George A., Nichols, Larry A.  Dictionary Of Cults, Sects, Religions And The Occult.  Zondervan Publishing House.  Grand Rapids, MI 1993

Novak, Philip.  The World’s Wisdom – Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions.  Harper/SanFrancisco.  New York, NY 1994

Ownby David. Falun Gong and the Future of China. Oxford University Press U.K. 2008

Palmer, David.  Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China.  Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY 2007

Parrinder, Geoffrey. ed.  World Religions – From Ancient History to the Present.  Facts on File Publications.  New York, NY.  1971

Pelikan, Jaroslav. ed.  The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought.  Little, Brown and Company.  Boston, MA 1990

Hom, Sharon.  and Mosher, Stacy.  Challenging China: Struggle and Hope in an Era of Change.  The New Press. New York, NY.  2007

Schechter.  Falun Gong’s Challenge to China: Spiritual Practice or Evil Cult. Akashic Books. New York, NY.  2001

Smith, Huston.  The Illustrated World’s Religions – A Guide To Our Wisdom Traditions.  Harper/San Francisco. New York, NY 1994

Tong, James.  Revenge of the Forbidden City.  Oxford University Press.  U.K. 2009

Wong, John, Liu, William.  The Mystery of China’s Falun Gong: Its rise and its sociological implications.  World Scientific Publications.  1999