An audio message on the Da Vinci Code by Bill Honsberger
1) What does Nietzsche actually mean by the phrase “God is dead”? Explain in relationship to such notions as “overman”, “eternal recurrence”, “will to power”, “nihilism”, and the “moral view of the world”. Quote extensively with proper citations to back up your argument.
The phrase “God is dead” has several possible meanings. Given the protection that Nietzsche gave his ideas through his style of writing (aphorisms, parables, etc) and given his penchant for irony, one can hardly say with certainty just what he meant but instead propose several options. One popular postmodern option as argued in class is that Nietzsche was arguing that western Christianity and western philosophy had become in turn “idolaters”. By reducing God to logical syllogisms and to simple moralistic tomes, God had become tame, limited and hardly worth noticing. By the writing of theology, God had become a pile of words, and this reduction had “killed” God. Nietzsche it is argued here is primarily blaming Kant for this extreme reduction whereby “God” has become good for nothing except a justification for morality. To the extent that Nietzsche is in fact making these complaints than I can agree with much of it. However I don’t believe that language, written or spoken, is the enemy and would argue that it is what is said about God that is a potential reduction. For example if I say that “God is all powerful and all knowing”, then the statement about God is not a limiting one and should be indicted under Nietzschean standards. It is too much of a straw man to think that Nietzsche was indicting the mere presence of text as if people were worshipping the text as opposed to the real God.
This brings another possibility as to what he meant by “God is dead”. God is dead; we (European Christians) have killed him. There is no good and evil. The argument is simple and profound. By the late 19th century, German philosophers and theologians had for the most part abandoned orthodox Christianity in favor of an enlightenment sort of view. The God of the Bible, who created and ruled the world, who engaged in the world through miraculous acts, was “fine” for uneducated fishers and farmers, but we “modern” people who know about science and logic cannot accept such an account. Following the lead of Hume and then Kant, the miraculous or supernatural world view which had dominated the continent for thousands of years was gone. Kant in moderating Hume a bit, did leave open the possibility of belief being rational, but faith was reserved for another category, that of the possible not of the space time world in which we live. After “destroying” the traditional rationalistic arguments for God, Kant proffered a moral argument for God. God must exist to ground universal morality. By the early 19th century, Kierkegaard and Schliermacher have taken up the point. Faith is irrational or emotive. A sense of “dependence” is all that is left of the once powerful God who moved heaven and earth. Hegel then reduced God to what ever has been done in the world. The Weltgeist is history, and that of the world. This immanence did not judge the world, but is the world and justified all the “progress”. Marx and Darwin come along as atheists and simple apply the logical conclusion to what the “Christians” in Germany had already done. Marx substituted the “state” for God in Hegel, and Darwin substituted natural selection for the formerly powerful creator. Towards the end of the 19th century then, Nietzsche surveys and honestly points out the obvious. “God” is dead. He has no role; he has no job. “Christians” don’t believe in the supernatural, they believe in science. Christians and Jews don’t need God to explain the universe, and as the social Darwinians are pointing out at the time of Nietzsche, they don’t need God to supply a basis for morality either. The “we” is I think German Christianity, which leads the way for the rest of Europe in Nietzsche’s understanding of things. God was not killed by strangers, but rather by those who claimed they “believed”. Of course this belief was qualified to the point of extinction. We will believe in God, if and only if (how do you like that for analytic talk?) he remains incidental to real life, or perhaps if he will be the base for our morality, but nothing else. This impotent God was killed easily enough, Nietzsche might think. And to Nietzsche, Kant did not understand just how fully he had undermined God. A God who has nothing to do with the space/time world has nothing to do with the morality in that world either.
Did Nietzsche kill God? No – all the real work was done by the “believers” in God. Nietzsche is profoundly religious – for an atheist. As Heller said about him (The Importance of Nietzsche p11.) “He is, by the very texture of his soul and mind, one of the most radically religious natures that the nineteenth century brought forth.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra on page 185 the pope calls Zarathustra (Nietzsche’s alter ego) “the most pious of those who do not believe”. Although he certainly despised Christianity, Nietzsche was very open to many aspects of eastern religion, in particular Buddhism. Some of this can be seen in some of his more popular themes. Take for example the idea of der Ubermensch or overman. Some connect this to the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva or enlightened one who having reached enlightenment returns to the masses to help them out of their dilemma. In Nietzsche’s case the overman was the one who rejected or transvalued all values and established his own values. In TSZ page 228, Nietzsche says of the overman that he “must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and break values. Thus the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness.” In Beyond Good and Evil page 68, Nietzsche says of the overman that he must have “opened his eyes to the opposite ideal! The ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity”. This shows part of the relationship between the overman and that of the eternal recurrence. The overman starts by throwing away all the conventions of slave morality, with its Judaic/Christian overlays, and transcends and creates his own morality. This transvalued morality is not a morality of what is right and wrong or mere preference for one code over another, but rather an acceptance of whatever is! This “is” is whatever life has to offer and no less. This world-valuing of Nietzsche demands that it must go on. The acceptance of whatever is must go. It must be accepted and desired by the overman. If the overman is seen as a verb (interesting idea but perhaps trans-nietzschean!) then each individual must also value life, with all that it means and desire for it to happen over and over.
This eternal recurrence is also similar to the idea of samsara in Buddhism. In discussing the theme he notes that “let us think this thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet occurring inevitable without any finale of nothingness; the eternal recurrence. This is the most extreme form of nihilism; the nothing (the meaningless) eternally! The European form of Buddhism: the energy of knowledge and strength compels this belief.” (The Will to Power. P 35-36) Although both in the case of the Bodhisattva and Overman, and the case of Samsara and eternal recurrence, there are distinctions as well as the commonalities already mentioned, I am not saying there is a one for one correspondence between the ideas, but rather there is a major influence in Nietzsche’s writing. As these relate to the notion of the death of God, it is interesting to note that the oldest version of Buddhism is the Theravada version, which is atheistic. So perhaps for Nietzsche the death of the biblical God is not the final religious statement but rather creates room for the ascendancy in European thought for a new religious point of view. The strength for Nietzsche might be found in another commonality between Buddhism and Nietzsche’s thought – that of the “disruption” of the moral view of the world. In classical eastern thought of almost all varieties, morality in all its forms are part of Maya, the illusion. They have no intrinsic reality or veracity and therefore no need for a god or gods to ground them. This is especially the case in versions of advaita Vedanta. Nietzsche state his affinity for this in this manner “The Buddhist religion is the expression of a fine evening, a perfect sweetness and mildness – it is gratitude towards all that lies behind…emancipation even for good and evil appears to be the essence of the Buddhist ideal.” (TWTP. P.597) Similarly, Nietzsche states in (BGE p. 44-45) that “We believe that morality in the traditional sense, the morality of intentions, was a prejudice precipitate and perhaps provisional something on the order of astrology and alchemy, but in any case, something that must be overcome.” In the same book he argues later that there are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena.
In this sense you can see part of his attack on Kant. There is no moral “thing in itself”. There is only a phenomenon. And this phenomenon is interpreted in different ways. Therefore there is no essential or universal morality. It then is not an abandonment of morality, for the overman chooses his own morality and affirms himself and life. It is the destruction of any notion of universal morality, which interferes with the Overman’s creator abilities. This is one of the reasons why Nietzsche “dances” with the announcement of the death of God. Without the one great light to dim all others, the “lesser” lights can now shine forth and blaze for themselves. Thus the will to power is born. God the one formerly dominant power is dead. This opens up the door for all others to become overman and thus show forth their own power. For Nietzsche this is again is worthy of a dance. How can one ever have power is there is always a power beyond our touch? But with the death of God, all power is now available. Since for Nietzsche all statements and affirmations are in fact willing to power, now they all have meaning and in this sense nihilism can be held off. This nihilism was the result of “decadence” and decadence was the result of both Christianity and other forms of morality, in particular philosophy. Bernd Magnus notes that “Christianity is the fruit of resentment. As a product of weakness it represents the decline of life, decadence, degeneracy, in contrast to the exuberant ascent of life which seeks expression in master morality. And so it follows for Nietzsche that Christianity, like platonic philosophy, severs body and soul, that it deprecates the human body, impulse, instinct, beauty, passion, the intellect.” (Reading Nietzsche. P. 166) In the Will to Power, Nietzsche argues that morality was seen as the “antidote” against both practical and theoretical nihilism. Morality gave purpose to God. Nihilism was perceived by western tradition as the great threat, always waiting at the door for an opportunity. With morality came purpose, design and other “Christian/western” values. Nihilism can be ignored because there was a cause to the universe, a design to the universe and therefore a purpose and meaning for the inhabitants thereof.
But what to do if all that is lost? What happens if God is dead? Nihilism rushes in to fill the vacuum. All that was settled is unsettled and all the foundations of the earth are off course. Nietzsche celebrates and is also repulsed by this event. He rejoices at the opportunity to affirm what is, to affirm and desire the eternal recurrence of what is, but he frets about the transition period that is coming. This “unsettling” of the entire western tradition is cataclysmic. As Zarathustra notes, how can anyone not notice or how can they not have heard that GOD IS DEAD? Do they not realize what this means? Do they not realize that life will never be the same? As Nietzsche points his finger at German Christianity and accuses it of killing God, he notes with irony that the emperor (the edifices of western churchianity) has no clothes. He will be the child who notes what should be obvious to all. God is dead. There is no good and evil. There is no meaning. There only is. Here I agree with Nietzsche.
This is why I think he is the most consistent atheist I have ever read. If one accepts his analysis then one is driven ruthlessly by the force of his argument. In my term paper I will argue that this is why one must reject his perspectival epistemology, but more on that in that work. If Darwin, and Marx, and the German philosophers are right, that there is no need for a God, because we have taken or explained away all the divine roles, than all there is, is “is”. The jungle as a literal reality and metaphor for life applies here. If no God, and therefore no transcendent or universal morality, then the jungle is what we came from and what must be. There is no slave ambushing the master in the jungle. The strong survive. The strong transvalue all other concerns except their own will to power, their own will to survive. They do not bemoan the plight of the weak – they eat the weak. They do not bemoan their status and attempt to handicap the reality of how they exist – they celebrate and act out of their own strength. This is why Nietzsche loved the old gods of Greece and powerful individuals like Napoleon. The old Greek gods were like human beings on steroids, constantly striving for supremacy. In the same vein, Napoleon overcame his “limitations” and strove for and achieved power. In that way he shows what is possible for any person. One wonders if the slightness of Napoleon’s stature was seen by the similarly small Nietzsche as a point worth celebrating in itself. The will to power being larger than the physical being itself. The will to power bursting beyond its limitations to affirm and expand its own power. I will leave this to the psycho-analytic folks to play with.
What is important here is that for him the higher call was found in “he who affirms all that is questionable and terrible in existence, he is Dionysian.” (TWTP. P. 49) One could not affirm all that is in the world if some things are divided into good and evil categories. This brings us to the ultimate Nietzschean conclusion, the passive nihilism which sees the purposelessness of existence and emptiness of values. The overcomer or Ubermensch then practices the active version of nihilism and tries to destroy the thing which it no longer believes. In this sense Nietzsche is both types of nihilist. He notes that western culture is attempting to talk of meaning, and value and morality, but that it no longer upholds that which gave all those things to it, namely the Christian God. As this God has been removed by those say they believe, Nietzsche then practices in his works the art of active nihilism and encourages others to do the same. Kill that which you no longer believe. Tear down what you do not believe in. You could argue that he is attacking the hypocrisy of what he sees in this culture. In this way he is the most “honest” of all his contemporary theologian, he despises their hypocrisy. And he is a theologian. He writes about God more than most who claim to be Christian. In this way he is also a philosopher. He thinks and thinks again about what his world has to offer and thus seeks wisdom where he can. He affirms the earth and all that is in it. But in another way he despises the earth of people while at the same time affirming nature. Perhaps he should be more consistent. How it is one might ask of him did the weak overthrow the strong? Are the strong really the strong? Why? If they really were strong, then the weak could not have done such a thing. Perhaps God is not dead after all…
Letter to a Buddhist
Hi Werner. Interesting thread for sure. Your discussion early on was quite well done, in reference to the problem of evil and all. I think it is the most interesting question of all me. One point I would add, as I have done in class to answer William Rowe and other atheists on this point, is that any discussion of child molestation murder (human acts under the free will category) and “acts of nature” like little Bambi’s dying in a forest fire, both require some measurement to be called “evil” Atheists have no standard other than nature itself or pure emotive or emotional reaction. Therefore for these acts to be truly “evil”, would require some transcendental component, which is denied by the atheists in their first line of argument. Anyways that is a fun one, but you are doing well there.
As far as your discussion with the Vajrayanist or Tibetan Buddhist, So much to say and so little time. There were several areas of controversy brought up and I will touch on a few. Just for the sake of clarification Zen is a different branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which even though there are perhaps thousands of individuated groups, all differ from the Theravada in that they deny the primitive Buddhist teachings (as seen by the Theravada) and believe that there are further revelations or “turns of the wheel” being revealed all the time, especially the Tibetans. Also in reference to all the similarities in quotes between “Buddha” and Jesus. The hard fact is that there are no extant copies of ANYTHING that the Buddha supposedly wrote that are earlier than roughly 1st century a.d. Most of the Mahayana documents and virtually all of the Tibetan revelations come hundreds of years after that. You see the same phenomena within Hindu texts as they take a direct turn after the first century a.d… Now whether there is a direct cause for this (Christian missionaries perhaps?) is an area for further study someday, and perhaps one I will get to play with. But for now, any relation to what was supposedly said by the Buddha was written down a minimum of 400 – 500 years after the fact, and again most of it even further removed than that. So that comparison/contrast is misguided at best. Even if you grant the basic Pali canon as true Buddhist comments, the points of discontinuity between the message of the Buddha and that of Jesus are not apples/oranges but rather apples/Volkswagens. There is virtually no comparison at all in their central thoughts. For example:
1) Buddha denied that there was anything existent eternally (the soul or jiva or atman – something that immediately separated him from the Hinduism that he was initially part of. Jesus, consistent with the Jewish tradition, taught that there is an immortal soul that lives past this physical life.
2) Buddha taught reincarnation as the result of karmic activity. Karma or action is not to be seen as “good” or “bad” in the way most Americans loosely use it, but rather is simply means action. Whatever is done, is karma. Judgment of this is part of the illusory nature of reality. The Hindus call this Maya – something affirmed by the Buddha many times. So to say that one can “balance” ones “bad” actions with “good” actions, as again routinely stated by new agey types in America, is to miss the Buddha’s real point, that all that we affirm as good and bad are merely illusory – the real or upper level understanding, as hinted at by your friend, is that we are all supposedly connected and all our distinctions are merely unenlightened encumbrances on our way to Nirvana. So real consistent Buddhist and Vedantist also on this point, point to the lack of any activity as the best course of all. By contrast to all this, Jesus clearly taught that the moral code was inviolate, that there really is good and evil and that to engage in evil activities is to invite the judgment of a holy God.
3) Buddha allegedly did not worry about the existence of a God such as seen in Christianity, but he clearly denies what was commonly believed in his day, the existence of an immortal consciousness or force – Brahman, often personalized in Hindu literature. But if you read virtually any Buddhist literature, especially Tibetan stuff, the stories virtually are filled with deities, sub-deities, gods, goddess, Bodhisattvas (usually described with what we would normally call divine attributes) and so on. In point of fact there are literally millions of these characters present in Buddhist literature. Only the Theravada, usually, are atheistic by definition, but that is not who you are dealing with. By contrast, Jesus affirmed that there is one God, the creator (something incomprehensible with the Buddhist systems) of all, who is holy and not to be identified with the created order in any essential way.
4) You rightly point out that the Buddhist teachings on enlightenment is a self-regulated path, but within the myriad of Buddhists groups there are just as numerous paths. Zen requires (generally) monastic discipline to do it “right”, but some Pure Land Buddhist believe you can just recite a name “Amidha” even only once and get a major lift up on the enlightenment path. Theravada pushes monastic discipline as well, but most Mahayanists expand this for lay people, another major distinction between the two paths. Tibetan paths usually require rejection of the world as it is, in favor of the essential monistic view already discussed above – we are all interconnected and one. There are many demons and gods who either help or hinder one on the vajrayana path, but the types of meditation often debated and used, are pretty much so completely antithetical to Christian thought in any possible way. The Tibetan Buddha’s have debated which version of this is better for enlightenment, but both require at least an incredible fixation on sex. The Tantric scripture start within Hinduism but were incorporated into Buddhism, and expanded in the Tibetan view. Two choices here – one as a male has sex with a woman to stimulate ones rejection of the world ethical codes, or one visualizes the copulative act in ones mind. In both cases men and woman are depersonalized and seen as principles. But in some of the literature you even get more power if one involves children in the process. Very sick stuff indeed. There is a lot more to this, but as you have already seen there is no possible comparison to Jesus’ thought on salvation. The very concept of Heaven and Enlightenment are radically distinct as well.
5) No way around this for your friend, but virtually all of the earliest Buddhist literature was filled with degrading statements about women. My Buddhism professor, herself a practicing Buddhist, had a hard time spinning for rich preppy liberal arts students at Denver University. The Buddha taught that woman need to incarnate as a man first so that they would not be hindered in the path. The Buddha encouraged literally thousands of men to leave their wives and family, (as he had done himself!) and the woman would often pursue him and beg him to be allowed into the Sangha (community of Buddhists followers) The Buddha said that if he allowed women to be enlightened, it would set the Dharma back 1,000 years! Oh well. He finally relented and establish female monasteries as well, but they were (and this is the case in the rare ones extant today!) but they were clearly at the low end of the food chain. It is scandalous how the rules established by the Buddha often starved the female monasteries literally out of existence. By contrast Jesus lifted up the women he dealt with, often scandalizing his public audience by his willingness to deal lovingly even with “fallen” women. Later Buddhist writings are more sympathetic to women, but suffer from the problem of being “discovered” (or as I would argue – invented) literally thousands of years after the Buddha died. As evil as many men have acted towards women in so called Christian cultures, would anyone seriously argue that women are treated better in Buddhist cultures? This brings up another serious point for your friend to think about…
6) The question now turns to what the “fruit” of Buddhism is. Now one can always point out the evils of Christianity. Its long list of institutionalized sins are inscribed in history forever. But any crusader, who killed a Muslim, or “Witch” or Jew or usually fellow Christian, was directly disobeying what Jesus said we are to do. You can blame us, but you cannot blame Jesus. But let us compare what goes on right now in Buddhist culture. Because of the Buddhist teachings on karma, reincarnation and Maya, a Thailand Buddhist father can justify taking his eight year old daughter and selling her to a whorehouse in Bangkok. After all, one should not fight against ones karma, perhaps she was a father who did this in a previous existence and this is merely the balancing of her karma. Or since the world is really just an illusion and the true reality is the interconnectedness of all life, then what we perceive is merely that, perception and has no real value in the “real” world. There is no real distinction between the farmer, the daughter, the pimp, and the pedophile, are all the same and ultimately all share the same existence both now and in the future – the vow of the Bodhisattva traditions is that all of life will achieve nirvana before they can. So ultimately all of our choices, good, evil or indifferent, are all the same, washed one in the monistic wash of interconnectedness. By contrast, Jesus affirms not only our distinctiveness, but our choices as well. The very notions of Heaven and Hell are significant because our moral choices are real ones, with real consequences. Christianity in one sense affirms the very real complaints against the institutionalized church. Because there is evil in this world and every person, Christian or not, is a sinner. This fact of evidence buttresses the need for the Cross. Only the Christian teaching of universal sin in the created world can make sense out of the very things that people complain about in reference to Christianity. In other words, the complainants against the Church have to borrow the Christian understanding of the world to criticize us. The Buddhist affirms the essential goodness of human beings, even while supposedly affirming neutrality on the point, by affirming our ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps as it were, and achieve our own enlightenment. But even after his enlightenment, the Buddha never returned to care of his wife and child, because his attachment to them was part of the PROBLEM! This example, often supported by another story of the Buddha’s preexistence where he actually gives his wife and kids who strangers who demand them, if why literally thousands of Hindu “householders” (men who were responsible to take care of their wives and children) deserted their families to join the monastery! No follower of the Buddha was allowed to work, so they (in many cases to this very day) have to beg for their food in neighboring villages. This is the “grace” of Buddhism. I as a monk allow you to give me food, thus giving you a ticket to heaven or another rung up the ladder of enlightenment. Sounds like our televangelists doesn’t it? So sad…
The supposedly enlightened Lama is on the record for numerous comments he has made attacking other versions of Tibetan Buddhism (there are four different major schools in Tibet), as well as critiquing other religions as well. None of this is seen much in the western press, as that might show a side of the Lama that people might not like in our enlightened pluralistic age where exclusivist is only supposedly seen in “bad” religions like orthodox Christianity. Oh well…
Just a few thoughts here. Let me know what you think and how else I can be of help.
—– Original Message —–
From: Werner Peters
Sent: Monday, August 05, 2002 10:26 AM
To: William Honsberger
Subject: RE: Buddhist conversation
He hasn’t told me yet which branch of Buddhist he is. He gave me this huge post making claims of similarity between Buddha and Christ. I have already pointed out contradictions in his logic, but logic doesn’t seem to count. And I am not sure where to go from there.
If you have the time, click on http://www.soonet.ca/cgi-bin/UBB-cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=23;t=000011;p=3
Or go to www.soonet.ca
Click on bulletin boards
Choose Religion and Politics
Then choose the forum How do you determine what truth is?
You have to register and give yourself a nickname before you can contribute, but anyone can read the thread.
From: William Honsberger [mailto:email@example.com
Sent: August 5, 2002 11:29 AM
Subject: Buddhist conversation
Hi Werner. My name is Bill Honsberger and I am a missionary who often talks to Buddhists. I also teach world religions and so am fairly conversant with most types of Buddhism. What kind of Buddhist are you talking to and where are they from?
HOW TO REACH A PAGAN WORLD
BY BILL HONSBERGER
America is a pagan country. According to the National Association of Evangelicals, America has the fourth largest pagan population in the world, and we are second only to Brazil in the number of missionaries that we receive from other parts of the world.(1) Obviously, other Christians see us differently than we see ourselves. Why this is and how this happened is not the focus of this article, but is addressed in others in this journal. My focus is on what we can do about it.
The Psychic Friends hotline brought in over $100 million dollars last year, as one of many different psychic avenues. Wiccan groups like Covenant of the Goddess, have grown over 500% in the past ten years.(2) Movies are teaching young people about the circle of life- the world view of reincarnation, the relativising of morality, and the new gospel of “Tolerance” has become bedrock for a new generation. A collective yawn goes out across the country when it is revealed the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, someone who professes to be a Christian, spends time talking to the dead with New Age authority Jean Houston. We are a pagan culture. While this may be distressing for many American Christians, the fact is that it is the normative experience for Christians to be a hated minority among a larger pagan culture. America has been the exception for Christian history, not the rule. And since it is not a new phenomena it is possible for us to look into our own history and see if there may be examples of how the Christian Church has operated successfully among the pagans.
God has been in the business of reaching out to pagans for a long time. Whether you call them pagans, or New Agers or witches, or idolaters or whatever else, there is nothing new about calling them into the family of God. In the Old Testament you see the examples of Ruth, Rahab, and others. In the New Testament you see Cornelius, Dionysius of Athens, and virtually all of the church at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and so on. In all of these cases, God reached out and brought to himself those who had been hard core enemies of the true faith. Just as this was uncomfortable for many in the believing community in both eras, the love of God was and is able to gather in those who oppose him. One could easily see the same reaction happening in the contemporary church. Most Christians want nothing to do with those who are Buddhist, Wiccan, Psychics and so on, because of fear or disgust and maybe other motivations. Another group of Christians seems to want to say that there is no need to witness to other religions because each group “comes to God in their own way.”(3) But we must be committed to the biblical certainty that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6). (4) If we believe that God loves pagans as much as he loves us, and this is certainly what God says (John 3:16-17) then we must take the great commission imperative seriously and commit ourselves to reaching out to those who oppose the Lord.
I might say here that there has been a concerted effort within the Christian community to reach out to pagans, and that it has been a failure, although this is not recognized by the participants yet. The belief seems to be, that if we build impressive buildings, and offer up quality entertainment, that the pagans will be attracted to the Gospel. In this new notion, the pastor serves as CEO, whose major focus must be on building the customer base of the corporation (church). The pastor must also be the community therapist, whose role is to gauge and assuage the “felt needs” of those within the consumer base, and do all he can to meet those needs. While this mega-church notion is possible and has had the observable success of building some very impressive campuses in select locations, it is very hard to argue that this has had any effect on the larger pagan culture at all.(5) In fact, it seems very evident that one might make the case that since the advent of the mega-church mentality, that the culture has become overwhelmingly pagan. While I am not saying that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two, I think I can say that if this is the best we have, then the Church is in trouble.
I am not a pragmatist, but even if I were, I might have cause to ponder whether the methodology of the mega-church is working. One might glance over to the former heart of “Christendom,” Europe, and see if the mega-church mentality will work. One might tour the impressive cathedrals, the beautiful works of art, and imposing repositories of billions of dollars of collective Christian history, and wonder why it is that they in effect are now wonderful tombs, fine museums, and are scarcely attended by less then 2% of the local population. If impressive buildings, or “Christian Malls over America,” and quality artistic endeavors are the key to reaching pagan America, then why is it not working in Europe? Even since the fall of the Berlin wall, when the initial outpouring into the churches seemed to be such a hopeful sign of great things for the church, the report is now that these churches are now basically empty too. Not to say that the Europeans are less “spiritual,” because cults, psychics, vampires and all sorts of wickedness are on the move, marching through the towns. England now has several Hindu temples, and the soon to be head of the Anglican Church, Prince Charles has his own personal Guru.(6) There are more Muslims in England than Methodists. In less than a hundred years, the English church, once the sending source of more missionaries than any other country, has less than two percent of its own population in attendance. Do we not see ourselves in this same light? I could go on but I would rather emphasize what we can do that is not only right by principal, but also by precedent can be shown to work.
We find ourselves looking more like the church of the first century than we could have ever imagined. We now have a personal understanding of what Paul must have felt when he entered Athens, with a god on every corner, and spare gods just to cover all the bases. As Chuck Colson noted a few years ago, we no longer live in Jerusalem, where everybody knew who God is, even those who did not believe. We now live in Athens, where you might get a hundred different answers to the question “Who is God?” How did the early church react? How did they effectively minister to their pagan world? And how can we do the same?
Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 66-67) has a series of charts showing the spread of Christian Churches for the first three centuries. From the beginning of the church until the end of the third century, the spread of the Christian church is impressive. The church has spread across the north of Africa, up through Europe to Gaul and England and east through Asia minor. What is most interesting about this is that this was accomplished without the help of any of the things we modern Christians think most essential for reaching out to pagans. This was done without church buildings, because the first known church building is not seen until 250 A.D. This was also done without trying to compete with the pagan world for entertainment. No one could compete with the pagans for impressive buildings and entertainment. The ancient wonders of the world were religion in stone, all meant to convey the grandeur of the gods they represented. One could not help but be astonished when you came upon the Colossus of Rhodes, or the Temple of Artemis in Corinth. These buildings would be incredible in our day, let alone theirs. As for entertainment, the pagans threw the best parties. The Coliseum and the Hippodrome were open daily, and the mystery religion of the Elesuians, for one example, threw drunken orgies that lasted for weeks.(7) It is essential that we understand that the early church could not compete at this level. They did not have the funds, the freedom and most importantly, the inclination. Knowing this, how then did they spread so quickly without reaching out to meet the “felt needs” of those early pagans? Let us examine what they did and why it worked.
I would like to use Ephesians 4:15 where Paul says we are to “speak the truth in love one to another.” The early church spoke the truth and they did it in love. Lets look at both aspects. There are numerous recorded accounts of early church leaders and apologists, writing letters to the Emperor, the local governors and other officials. There are also a few recorded incidents where the pagan leaders were confronted in person.(8) What was this about? The most despised thing by the early church was the games in the Coliseum. These were criticized for the slaughter of thousands of people and animals. The early church spoke out against slavery, abortion, the mistreatment of the poor. They also spoke out against paganism in its religious elements; mystery religions, Gnostic groups, the emperor cult and so on. The church did not worry about what was “politically incorrect,” and it often cost them a very high price. But fear of offense, which seems to paralyze so many modern Christians, did not appear to be a problem for the early church.
Another fear of contemporary Christians, is antagonizing non-Christians by saying that there is only one way to heaven. Pluralism seems so polite, so pleasant, so tolerant, and so many in the Church advocate the inclusion of all faiths under one umbrella. But the early Church suffered under no such delusions. They spoke out against pagan beliefs of all sorts. The Apostles spoke often against false prophets and teachers, (I John, Jude, 2 Peter, Colossians, Galatians) and the first generations followed their example. Ireneus, in his Against Heresies, addressed many of the pagan beliefs that we still deal with today, such as reincarnation, Gnostic denigration of the material world and so on.
Others such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr spoke out against paganism in all its forms. Pagans, such as the young Augustine, were often struck by the dramatic difference between biblical faith and the pagan pantheons. We must be as clear today. The gospel of pluralism, is no real gospel. It may make one better dinner company, but it will not save anyone. By contrast, the early church was often willing to die for the exclusivistic claim of Jesus as Lord, not Caesar, nor anyone else. Another thing to consider when addressing speaking the truth to pagans, is the use of reason in apologetics/evangelism. One favorite technique with the scriptures is that of the reductio ad absurdum (reduce to the absurd). This means that you assume your opponents position and see where it leads. You can see this for example, being evidenced in the mockery of Isaiah, when he writes concerning the pagan, who, having cut down a tree, takes “half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me, you are my god'” (Isaiah 44:16-17). Isaiah notes and mocks the obvious; no “god” that I create, can save me! You also see this when Ezekial meets with the pagans at Mt. Carmel. In I Kings 18:21 ff., Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, the penultimate nature religion of the day. After noting that all their pleas and bloodletting has not brought forth Baal to challenge the prophet of the true God, Elijah shouts out, “Shout louder…surely he is a god. Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” The point is clear: If Baal was really God, then none of the theatrics or obscene rituals was necessary.
You can also see this type of argumentation being used in the New Testament. When Jesus discussed the resurrection with the Sadducees, who denied it, he points out that the Sadducees themselves pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since this is so, their own words belie their position. God is not the God of the dead, but rather the God of the living (Mark 12:18-27)! Jesus does a similar thing in the same chapter of Mark, when he points out that the rabbis were teaching that the Messiah is the son of David, and yet David himself says that the Messiah is his Lord. The rabbi’s position is undermined by contrary evidence, from within the rabbi’s own scriptures.
In much the same way, we can use this type of argumentation in talking to pagans. For example, one can take the common belief of “Maya”-the notion that all of reality is but a illusion of the mind, and that even the mind itself is an illusion. The “true” reality, is that all exists is the same exact thing, and that it is God. This is the heart of monistic pantheism; all is one and all is god. Many pagans in America are in what I call a “Christian hangover.” That is, they were raised within some form of Christian church and have left it for various reasons and are now pagans. They were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and now are Buddhists, Hindus and Wiccans. And yet many of them have brought with them various Christians notions, such as caring for the poor, and the environment, etc. For example Marianne Williamson, author of Return to Love and many other books, is a proponent and teacher of a (spirit) “channeled” book called A Course in Miracles. She claims that this book was written by Jesus, who has come back to the world through this book, “to undue the damage done to the world for the last two thousand years.” What is this damage? The damage is that the church has taught that people are separated from God because of their sin. The message of this new “Jesus” is that there is no such thing as sin, and that we cannot be separated from God because we are God!
Why does this not seem to be obvious, and why does our perceptions seemed to be marked by so much apparent evil? Well, Williamson says we are living in a hallucination (her description of Maya!) and that all we see is merely the creation of our minds, which are really God’s mind. In the meeting where I heard Williamson explain all this, she spoke for close to two hours about how all that exists is an illusion, and that freedom and enlightenment come, when one discovers this. At the end of the meeting she took up a collection for AIDS patients!
The irony is delicious; if I am an illusion, and the AIDS patients are an illusion and the disease is an illusion and money is an illusion, then the illusory collection is undermined.
Richard Gere does the same thing as a supporter of the Dalai Lama and of Tibetan nationalism. In an article a few years ago, Gere notes that all of reality is merely a function of the mind. This belief was taught him by the Tibetans. But at the end of the article he chastises the Chinese government for brutally murdering and destroying the Tibetan people. (10) But one might ask, “Mr. Gere, if it is true that reality is merely a function of the mind, as taught to you by the Tibetan Buddhists, then why don’t the Tibetans merely change their minds! Poof! No more Chinese.” But this doesn’t seem to have worked. Perhaps one could take the belief of reincarnation and see if that helps. The Tibetans believe in reincarnation and therefore should appreciate the conclusions that come from its teachings. If Gere were to take the fatalistic eastern view of reincarnation, that of the Tibetans themselves, then he knows that all actions or karma, are merely the byproduct of past actions. That is, the explanation for the hardship of the Tibetans today can only be explained by understanding that the Tibetans must have invaded Beijing in an earlier life. Of course this won’t justify Gere’s complaint either, so perhaps we can look at the western spin on reincarnation. Most western views still emphasize that what people experience is the direct consequence of karma, but we experience this now for our personal growth, and by our personal choice: Reincarnation with a happy face:). But if this is the case, then once again we must ask if perhaps the Tibetans shouldn’t just grin and bear it, as their slaughter by the Chinese is something they chose for themselves and something which will help them “grow.” Whichever way he goes, Gere’s complaint against the Chinese is undermined by his own beliefs.
Now the best part of all this is now to come. This is a wonderful opportunity to witness to pagans, because they and we are created in the image of God. That is at least to say that they have moral notions and that this experience is a universal one. So we can find common ground with people of pagan persuasion in the moral arena. However since most if not all pagan groups deny the existence of absolute ethics, especially those of the Lord, then ethics must be purely relative, perhaps just emotions blurted out, or ethics become the playground where the self is King, and can play by whatever rules it likes. None of this however, gives one reason to help AIDS patients or try to help the Tibetans. The grief that Williamson and Gere share, are proof that their own beliefs cannot work.
The traditional response of eastern religions is some sort of two-tiered notions of reality. The upper level is true reality, where monistic pantheism is true.(11) This is the “true” or higher level of consciousness. The lower level, where we all live in this world, is ultimately a false reality, but for some reason we must play by its rules. This sets up the believer as a moment by moment hypocrite, for living in a false reality and acting like its real, while all the time believing that the world they live in is not real. Yet as one has stated, even Hindus look both way before they cross the street! This just shows the hypocrisy deeply imbedded within the religious consciousness of the pagan believer.
Another example of this futility can be shown through a conversation I had with a Theraveda Buddhist. As a Buddhist of this type, Sukkacitto is deeply committed to atheism and non-violence. Behind all of reality is not God, but rather nothingness, Sunyata, the void. After reading his literature, I told him that I appreciated his stance of non-violence towards living things. But I wondered, as an atheist, how could he know that non-violence was right? Who says so? His answer was that nature teaches us the law of non-violence. I told him that was an interesting idea, but all one had to do was watch a David Attenborough video for five minutes, before you figured out that all nature is animals killing each other and making more little animals who kill each other. You can learn a lot from the created world, but you cannot learn non-violence! At that point Sukkacitto yelled at me, “Bill, you just think you need a personal God to teach you right from wrong!” “Exactly,” I responded. You see, unlike most relativists, Sukkacitto did not want non-violence to be merely an option alongside of violence. He knows that in order to raise non-violence above the relativistic swamp, that there must be something bigger than all our opinions to justify it. But being an atheist, he had discarded the possibility that God can ground all our moral certainties or uncertainties. Then he had turned to nature, which is by definition bigger than all of us, but has the slight drawback of being completely unable to teach, what he claimed it did.
Yet Williamson, Gere and Sukkacitto all share the same basic desire, that of seeing the consequences of sin dealt with. They had experienced disease, war, violence and had been struck by the destructive power of sin unchecked. All desired that things could be better, that the situations might be made right. But all of these emotions are a direct denial of the belief systems that all three hold. If everything is Maya, or merely a byproduct of your mind, or just the void, then there are no moral rights and wrongs, no evils to be rectified, no clue as to what direction one goes to fix the situations. How can one shape an illusion? What direction can one go, and know that this is the right direction, if there is no “right?” Yet they all seem to instinctively know that wrong is being committed and want things to change. This again points back to the image of God, which as C.S. Lewis argues, is universal in its scope. This fundamental feeling, is easy to deny in print, as many New Age leaders do,(12) but much harder to ignore in real life. This gives the Christian a perfect opportunity to present the true creator of this very real world, introduce what He thinks of sin and evil, and take the New Ager to the real solution for the problem of evil in this life, Jesus the Messiah.
Secondly, the early church acted within the context of love. The early church was criticized by the pagans as a “slave religion,” because so many slaves were becoming Christians. The church cared for the poor in ways that no edifice of stone could. They would help bury the dead of pagans; they would buy the freedom of pagan slaves; they would feed the pagans.(13) This was something people understood. What they could not understand was why the Christians would do this. It made no sense to the pagan mind to take care of others who were not your own immediate family. When Jesus gave the new commandment in John 13, he noted that all people would know who his disciples were by “their love for one another.” By telling us to love our neighbor in Luke 10, in the Good Samaritan story, he pointed out that our neighbor is anyone we find in need. Together these two concepts provided an unbeatable combination.
Now, normally I am very reluctant to say that we can learn something from the pagans, but listen to what one famous pagan, Julian the Apostate, says about us. Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome, from 360-361 A.D. Wanting to rebuild the grandeur of Rome, but unable to revitalize the pagan religions in the old fashioned way so many of his predecessors had (by slaughtering the Christians!), he funded pagan temples, education, and clergy. In a letter to his high priest in Galatia, he tells Arcasuis something about our own predecessors that we might need to remember. He states: “Why do we not notice that it is their kindness to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [i.e., Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception…In the second place admonish them that no priest may enter a theatre or trade that is base and not respectable…in every city establish hostels in order that strangers may profit by our generosity; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money…for it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans [Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”(14)
Isn’t it fascinating that he has to order Arcasius to build hostels for travelers in need, and then has to emphasize that he wants them open for people other than their own? It seems so clear that the “secret” of the early church, was to simply do what Jesus told us to do; love each other, and even love our enemies. Why did this work and how can it apply to today?
I think perhaps the clearest explanation is also the simplest; the reason this kind of love worked, it that it spoke to the real need of people. As Dr. Gordon Lewis stresses elsewhere in this journal, apologetics and evangelism must seek for “common ground” with those involved with paganism. The most common ground of all for human beings is our common alienation from God and from each other. When the early church loved people in the simple, yet profound way that they did, they “spoke” a language that the pagans had no counterpoint for. The essence of New Age paganism is narcissic, in all its forms. The self is ultimate and autonomous, with all else being part of Maya-the illusion. This focus on self and self only, under the guise of “spiritual development,” by definition excludes the care for others, and undermines the ultimate idealism often parroted by contemporary leaders within New Age ranks. Why care for the environment is the world is an illusion? Why love your neighbor if all is an illusion? New Age author Joseph Campbell, in the PBS series entitled “The Power of Myth,” explains his version of the commandment to love your neighbor, not as a command to think of others, as seen by Christ’s disciples throughout church history. Rather, he says that the command to love others as yourself is based upon the notion that to love others as yourself is to know that when you do so, you are really loving yourself. Why? Because you are your neighbor. This is the logical extension of monistic pantheism. If all is one and all is God, then all distinctions break down into “Maya.” In response, one could note that for paganism, loving a rock in the same way as one ought to reach out to help the poor, is also the same thing. Rocks and poor people are both part of the illusion, so they are the same.
Within this foundation is the heart of the complaint made by Julian. We must imitate the Christians caring for others. But historically this didn’t work, and this is because the pagan beliefs systematically undermine the concern for the other. By contrast, Christians are commanded to think of serving other people, as a way of serving Jesus. The “benchmark” for the success of the Church in following Jesus, is not our buildings, but rather our reaching out to the very people he reached out to, the poor, the sick, the weak, the orphans, the widows, and so on.
While nothing I have said here is original, it is intended as slap in the face to the Church in America today. I meet too many people who formerly sat in Christian churches of one sort or another, who are now thoroughly pagan. I also meet too many Christians in churches, who know nothing of their own faith, and yet seem fascinated by Wicca, channeling (communication with supernatural entities), and other varieties of paganism. We must speak the truth in love within our own ranks, and also to the larger community of people involved with the “new” religious movements. The good news is, that we do not have to reinvent the wheel, or seek out the latest thing from some marketer, but instead can remember God’s word to our predecessors in the faith, and remember how well God’s methods work when applied.
Bill Honsberger graduated from Denver Seminar in 1981 with a masters of arts degree in systematic theology, and in 1990 was appointed as a missionary to New Age and New Spiritualities Evangelism by Mission to the America’s.
(1) The source for this material is a booklet entitled, America-The New Mission Field, published by the National Association of Evangelicals. Edited by James D. Leggett, January 1996.
(2) The direct statement of this is from Phyllis Curolt, then leader of the Covenant of The Goddess, given in her talk at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, 1993. The rest of these types of statements are culled from Newsweek, New Age Journal, and numerous other sources.
(3) The best example of this is found in John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). The issue is also discussed in More than One Way edited by Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1995).
(4) All biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version of the Holy Bible (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1978).
(5) This analysis is deeply dependent on the writings (whether they like it or not!) of David Wells in his two books, No Place for Truth, and God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993 and 1994 respectively). Also gleaned from George Barna’s What Americans Believe (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1991), Os Guinness’s No God but God and numerous other books, articles and conversations.
(6) Taken from article in USA Today, July 12, 1991 and other sources.
(7) Much of this is taken from The Golden Bough, by James Frazer (Avenel, NJ: Random House Company, 1993 edition).
(8) For information concerning the early church fathers, see Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1977), Christianity through the Centuries by Earle Cairns (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), and Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1982).
(9) Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing Co., 1992 and A Course in Miracles edited by Ken Wapnick (published by the Foundation for Inner Peace and Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1975).
(10) Taken from an article entitled “Gere Says Reality is Function of Mind,” Associated Press, date unknown.
(11) The most well known Hindu Philosopher who argued this way was Shankara (circa 820 A.D.) Quoted in Commentary on Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad, IV, 4, 6 quoted in Elliot Deutsch Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction (Honolulu, HI: The University Press of Hawaii, 1969). (Thanks to Dr. Doug Groothuis for this reference.)
(12) For example see The Fireside Treasury of Light edited by Mary Olsen
Kelly (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990). For the Love of God
edited by Benjamin Shield and Richard Carlson (San Rafael, CA: New World
Library, 1990). The Coming of the Cosmic Christ by Matthew Fox (San
Francisco, CA: Harper/Collins Publishers, 1988). Science of Being and
Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (New York, NY: Signet Books, 1968
and too many others to list here.
(13) See the same historical references listed in (8).
(14) See Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, 137-138 .
How Fallabalistic Foundationalism and Theophanics saved the world (With apologies to the Irish)
This paper will initially attempt to cut short the incredible width and breadth of the project of going “Beyond Postmodernism”, and will give a modest proposal as to how one can have knowledge that is justified and a philosophy which has a proper balance of metaphysics and ethics, which themselves are justified in a warranted manner. I will attempt to show that Christian theology, reconstituted as “theophanics” and fallabalistic/modest foundationalism, in combination give a comprehensive approach to the question of resolving the postmodern dilemma.
In the 1980’s movie “War Games”, the story revolves around a boy who hacks his way into the defense network of the United States to play what he believes are computer games. Unknowingly, he sets into motion the defense network, where the “supercomputer” perceives the commands as an actual attack by the Soviet Union. As the story reaches its climax, the computer’s designer and the boy attempt to short-circuit the system before it launches a response to the Soviet “attack”. They do this by playing Tic-Tack-To with the computer and the computer responds by “learning” the futility of playing Tic-Tack-To. The computer then starts running all of its war game scenarios and then the moral of the story is made clear – the only way to win, is not to play.
In much the same way that Levinas did this, I want to argue that the best way out of the Post modern swamp, is never to swim in it. This does not mean that one does not engage postmodernism and its issues, but I hope to show in this paper that one can engage the concerns without buying the postmodern farm.
One of the fun and interesting things about a project like this is that the ground rules we establish by definition limit and shape the scope of the intended or desired results. The title of the class “Beyond Postmodernism” sets up a framework that can be summarized in the following way. Post modernity has ravaged the philosophical and general academic world. It has deconstructed all of the “giants” that had dominated the intellectual and aesthetic world, and having done that, it sits at the top of the academic hill, daring anyone to knock it off its perch. As we listened to several attempts to find our way out of the dilemma, I was struck by the enormity of both what we were saying and what it would take to actually pull this off. The enormity of the task is daunting indeed. The problem as discussed needs to be trimmed down. In actuality, Postmodernism has not and most likely will not rule the world in general or the academic world in particular. If one takes the APA as an illustration, most estimates lie in the range of 70-80% of the professional philosophers are not in fact postmodern by disposition. It would probably be similar in British universities. In as much as postmodernism is usually seen as hostile to religion/theology, it is quite clear that the majority of the worlds population takes seriously their religions, with all their accompanying meta-narratives and meta-ethical systems, which would militate against the influence of postmodernism. This is not to say that it has not had an impact, but rather to limit its framework to a much more modest influence. Outside of continental philosophical and humanities bastions, such as many French, German and United States universities, and of course the entire audience of MTV, postmodernism has had a limited reach. This does not diminish its effects on those who have received it with open arms, but it does simplify our class goal.
As the class sat judging each attempt to get out of the swamp, it was clear that there was a of criteria for what would constitute a valid move out. The people in the class who are sympathetic to postmodernism don’t seem to have any desire to move along, and the opponents don’t have a set criterion either. One could say that the class fits the Pomo paradigm, in that each tribal representative in the class is or would be resistant to any of the other paradigms achieving Meta status. If one thinks that meta-narratives are inherently evil or problematic, then it is unclear how one could convince them otherwise, especially since certain pomo themes seem to be “given” instead of argued. Colonialism is evil, tolerance is demanded and all must be included. But this is all problematic within the Pomo framework, as these claims have the status of meta-ethical claims, but not the religious or philosophic narratives to support them. These claims then have an emotional appeal to them, but it seems that they are merely operating on borrowed capital and should not have some epistemic privilege as one tries to determine a way out of Postmodernism.
Certain things are needed for a holistic approach to the issue. This does not mean that everyone will be happy with the criterion as established, but a potential meta-narrative must at least have some basic properties. First the potential candidate must have a basis in reality. It must “touch the ground” as it were. Most people, with the exception of a few particular strands of philosophies, think that they have knowledge from their perceptions and other basic “tools”, such as memory, rationality, and so on. Any candidate for Meta status which denies what seems so self-evidently true is never going to be taken seriously. If one were to claim that my computer is actually a pink cow, which only appears to the unenlightened eye as a computer, then most people will not take the candidate as a real option. More detail on this later. As unpopular among Pomo thinkers as it is, most people operate out of a correspondence view of truth. The cat is on the rug if and only if the cat is on the rug. Generally, people don’t seem to see the “wisdom” and “deeper nuances” of the attack on propositional truths, especially when the attacks seem to be given propositionally! A Madonna video several years ago illustrates the confusion here. With the screen full of dervishes whirling around, Madonna intones softly the words “words have no meanings – especially sentences”. One does not need years of training to see the problem here.
A second criterion is that of non-contradiction or internal coherence. Any candidate that is inconsistent in major ways within its own structure is going to be problematic for anyone to take seriously. If ones religion says to love the neighbor and eat the neighbor at the same time and with the same respect, then the candidate seems to be a non-starter. Unfortunately for many within the multicultural world the notion of cognitive dissonance is not seen as problematic anymore. For some thinkers, the holding of mutually exclusive thoughts is worn as a badge of honor, as an example of a “higher” or “deeper” truth. Others say that they are tired of the same old “western” logic of either/or and prefer the wisdom of the alleged “eastern” logic of both/and. But as one former Hindu writer puts it “even Hindus (speaking of Advaitists who deny the reality of the perceived world) look both ways before they cross the street! As much as people try to deny the rules of logic, they are bound by them. To deny the law of contradiction is just to illustrate it. The laws of logic do seem to be part of the “furniture” of the mind, in a Kantian sort of way.
A third criterion will be that of existential viability. By this I mean that a candidate must be livable and livable in such a way that gives value to the world and to its inhabitants. This can be quite controversial depending on how it is framed, but it seems evident that most people desire a framework, be it philosophical, political, religious or whatever, that values them and values the “creation”. One can always find counter-factuals on these claims, but it still seems to be self-evidently true. One of the observable strengths of the old meta-narratives was their ability to give, within the framework of the believers therein, a comprehensive meaning and value to life. Starting then from that point, it seems logical to point out that this is something that is deeply desired by people, hence the numerical “success” of the larger religions of the world, etc. One who argues that value in life can come through torturing others or beating the poor then become problematic. This can also extend to environmental concerns. Despoiling the earth, even on the anthropomorphic view, is problematic as it is a threat to the well-being of all. Another point within this criterion would be that of consistency or “rubber meets the roadness”. Too many points of view ask a person to sacrifice what they know to be true or false about this world, in favor of a “higher” or “more ultimate” level of reality, where the rules of this world don’t apply, rationally, physically and morally. Some narrative contenders ask their followers to act like this world is true, but deny that it is by insisting that this world is an illusion, dream, etc. The true world is “non-dual”, but of course we live in this dualistic one and for some reason not clear to the unenlightened majority of its inhabitants, the dualistic worlds rules must be followed, even though it is the unreal world. This type of narrative forces one into immediate cognitive dissonance to the point of intellectual hypocrisy with each breath.
There may be other valid criterion from which one could make a well-reasoned judgment as to which narrative should be considered worthy of being a meta-narrative. For the purposes of this paper, the criterion will be limited for the sake of expediency.
Does fallabalistic or modest foundationalism meets the first criteria? While foundationalism takes many lumps, deserved or not, from postmodern circles, its simple tenets are the basis that most people use and have found useful. Philosopher Robert Audi describes how knowledge is grounded in the following way:
“Each kind of belief is grounded in the source from which it arises. Our examples illustrate at least three important kinds of grounding. Consider my belief that there is a blue spruce before me. It is causally grounded in my experience of seeing the spruce because that experience produces the belief. It is justificationally grounded in that experience because the experience, or at least some element in the experience, justifies my holding the belief. And it is epistemically grounded in the experience because in virtue of that experience my belief constitutes knowledge that there is a blue spruce before me.” (Audi, Robert. 1988. Belief, Justification and Knowledge. Wadsworth Publishing Co. Belmont, WA p.5)
Notice that his definition includes seeing, experiences and knowledge, all woven in between and through and around each other. This is just a complicated way of saying what most people ordinary understand truth to be. If one sees a tree in front of then, then they are justified in saying and thinking that they have knowledge that there is a tree in front of them. This doesn’t seem controversial to most people, but as Wittgenstein points out repeatedly, nothing is so simple that some philosopher can’t muck it up. Now the point that many Pomo critics have made against the correspondence view is that this knowledge that was just exemplified has been described as “certain”. This certainty is seen as problematic in that it ruled out possibilities. Perhaps the tree is an illusion or hallucination. Perhaps it is only a dream. Perhaps it is merely a power grab by imperialistic left brained patriarchal Neanderthals who seek to colonize the world of peace loving plant life. Whatever possibility one chooses here, the Pomo critics insist that this certainty is rife with problems and therefore it is sheer hubris to claim to have certain knowledge about the tree. Perhaps some versions of foundationalism have suffered from that very hubris. This is the reason my view is called modest foundationalism. What I mean by this is that one can have knowledge in the way described above, but this knowledge is open to defeasibility. This means that if other facts can undermine the knowledge of the tree, then one must adjust their view accordingly. They might find out later that the tree was in fact a façade and thus their view of what they saw must be reconsidered. But it would take more facts – observations, reasoned arguments, etc, not less, to cause an adjustment of what can consider warranted true belief.
This argument is important because even though the Pomo critics want to deny certainty, as illustrated earlier, they seem to act as if they have if all the time. Most Pomos use science as if it was based on real knowledge. They don’t react with surprise if their car starts in the morning. But knowledge must be grounded on something, whether observation or analytic reasoning or something else which is itself grounded in experience or rational assessment. Mere intuition or kindly feelings do not ground anything. Mystical experiences are beyond validation through regular channels and are very problematic as a basis for knowledge. All knowledge claims must be verifiable in some way in order to be considered as justified. There are many possible ways to justify a knowledge claim and each way has differing criterion. Under normal conditions, scientific claims for knowledge must be repeatable and observable. Even in science however there are “singularities”, such as the birth of stars, etc, which are not observed or repeated but are considered true events because of inference to the best possible explanation or some argument like that. This knowledge may again be undermined, but it will take better evidence and or better arguments to do this. Other types of knowledge claims have different criterion. For example, historical claims must be observed or deduced from data, by someone somewhere, but usually are not repeatable. The very nature of history itself precludes repeatability. Does this somehow undermine historical claims as knowledge? I think that there is very little doubt as to the historicity of Abraham Lincoln, (although as the crop of holocaust revisionists might make one pause). The reasons that people give for believing that Lincoln lived are because of eyewitness accounts, photographs, and personal effects that are ascribed to him by witnesses. Now it is possible that all of this was fraudulently packaged to make one think that Lincoln lived, but there would have to be evidence to make this kind of case. This distinguishes historical facts from scientific facts, but most people seem to consider both types of knowledge claims as worthy of the title “knowledge”.
It must be clear that in both the cases of science and history, that later facts have come out which have upended the previous knowledge claims. In these cases it was not mystical intuition or feelings, drug binges or visitors from the Pleiades which caused the majority of people to see the new knowledge claims as true as opposed to the previous claims. Science rejected the notion of a universe full of “ether” but this was the result of additional observational information, not a chakra reading at the psychic fair. Critics of the Bible had to revise at least part of their charges when evidence was found for the Assyrian empire, something which had been previously denied. So in this sense all claims for knowledge are defeasible, in that later evidence can overthrow the claim with a superior one.
This view of modest foundationalism also has the benefit of dealing with one of the Pomos serious complaints; that of arrogance derived from certainty. We can still claim certainty for the knowledge we have, but there is always the possibility that it can be undermined. We also base this knowledge on real experience and real rationality, thereby eliminating all dubious claims. On a side note, while the Pomo is correct in critiquing the arrogant modern who claims to have all knowledge, or most knowledge with the rest on the way (the confident naturalist line), it is just as arrogant to claim that you have no “truth” and no one else does either (the Caputo line). Isn’t that just another all-encompassing knowledge claim? How can one possible argue that they know that no one has certain knowledge? They must appeal to sense perception or to an a-priori commitment and neither one justifies this statement.
So we are left with experience and rationality as sources for truth, and without getting into tremendous detail over Kant’s analysis of these points, I would argue that Kant went too far to make room for Hume’s tirade against miracles. Hume contradicts his own potential allowances for evidence that he would consider as applicable for miracles. After giving his own criterion for what kind of evidence for miracles, Hume then denies the whole possibility of miracles based on “the very nature of the thing”, in other words, an a-priori commitment to naturalism. Hume’s argument sets the stage for the extreme version of empiricism which culminates in logical positivism two centuries later, which many Pomos and non – Pomos alike find so disagreeable and contradictory. Because of Kant’s overreaction to the supposed force of Hume’s argument, faith and evidence and/or faith and reason have become enemies in so many circles. Since I am rejecting Hume’s argument and Kant’s overreaction, I am positing that there is in fact a rational and empirical basis to the Christian faith. This is part of what I want to explore in the next section.
I want to focus the theology section on the area of incarnational theology which I will call theophanics. A theophany is an appearance of God in the world in different ways. The burning bush speaking to Moses in one example of this phenomenon. By focusing on theophanics I hope to clear away the problems that arise within the loss of the signifier/signified connection so central to the Pomo complaint. When Christians say that God has appeared in the world, we generally mean that he has spoken to the world. In this way you can argue that appearance by God equals spoken by God. The arche theme of the Hebrew Bible is that God has spoken to people from the very beginning. God “walked” in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. God “spoke” from heaven to Noah. God “spoke” to Moses through the bush, and spoke to Pharaoh through Moses and the miracles. God appeared and spoke to the Patriarchs and through and to the Prophets He spoke to Israel as a nation. To the three in the fiery furnace, God appeared as a man with them. To the wandering Hebrews, God appeared as the Shekinah cloud. There are many more illustrations but it is clear that the writers of the Hebrew Bible believed that God was in constant communication/appearances with His people. These are generally not reported as mystically private events, and were witnessed in some cases by thousands of people. When God spoke/appeared to the people, He was not lost in some theological maze of abstract metaphysics; rather He was fully present, in the phenomenon and in the speech. He was not removed from the signified, because the signifier was fully present in the signified. There was not a one to two step removed road map to the eternal reality, but rather the creator of the eternal reality was fully present in the present reality. The respect the Hebrews showed for their scriptures made this very clear. God himself was somehow present in these words. Not ontologically in some pantheistic sense, but somehow very present at all times. This is where Derrida and the other Pomo writers have been correct about onto-theological theology. The full presence of God has not been present in writings that seem so detached from the awe and power of the omnipresent creator. But the Hebrew poets and prophets spoke of God as if He was in their face, literally at times, and as someone you could have a relationship with, not as some ultra-transcendent clock-winder. The transcendent unknowable God was Aristotle’s “Prime Mover”, so removed from us that it did not even realize the world had been created. This “god” was so surrounded by its own cloud of thoughts, that the idea of relationship and communion with people was not even possible. But the God of the Hebrew Bible was alive, and active and present in the world, thought separate ontologically from the world. He was involved with creatures that were created for the very purpose of relationship with God.
The New Testament has this same picture, but it is now even more intense. The writer to the Hebrews says that God, who had formerly spoken to his people through the law and prophets, had now been fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. God had “tabernacled” with us. Emmanuel – God with us. Jesus says to his disciples that when they had seen him, they had seen the Father. When asked if he would desert Jesus, Peter responds “where would we go, you have the words of life”. Paul describes the scriptures as inspired or “God-breathed”. In other words they are out of and full of the very presence of God himself. God is present in “the very act of signification” itself. In this sense theophanics is not completely separated from faith and works but neither is it tied to either directly. The reality of the incarnation was the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in relationship with his creations. No distant sliding signifier here. No absence without a trace here. Rather again the full presence was imminent in the person of Jesus. God had condescended to look like us, to speak like us, to hurt like us. He shared our pains and sufferings and was fully present in each possible way. Yet he was also different. He did not fail like we do, did not strike out like we do, and so his ethical presence was also fully present in his person. In the incarnation we see lived what Levinas meant by a first philosophy of ethics. Jesus spent more time talking on how people should treat each other than on any other singular subject. And this ethic was not part of some dream world or illusory experience, but rather the same ethics that applied in the eternal reality, are to be applied in the present reality. No cognitive dissonance required to live as God would have you live.
Just as importantly, these ethical commitments are based on freedom and real choices. By this I mean that unlike many candidates for Meta status, Christian ethics are based on the very nature of God himself. They are not arbitrary for God nor are they above God, but rather “flow” from who He is. Part of this is shown in that God made us in his image and that image has a moral essence. This moral essence (conscience) obliges us to care for the other. Here we see to what Levinas is referring. But what Levinas does not talk about (at least in his philosophical writings that we have read) is why it is that we find it so easy not to care for the other, and that it seems to be the exception to the rule that we do. Levinas missed out on an important part – what happens when we fail to treat others as we know we are ethically bound to? The New Testament picture of the atonement of Jesus for our failures/sins is a key addition here.
It is crucial to note that for both the ancient Hebrews and for the New Testament Hebrews, that the presence of the Lord was manifested publicly and privately. Their argument was not some esoteric, ineffable, Gnostic mystical experience available only to the enlightened, but rather was public, made available to believer and non-believer alike. Here even if I grant Hume’s argument as given, I would say that the Christian faith stands up to his standards as given, and does so in the same way that any other historical claim can stand up to further scrutiny. Contra Hume – people do make the claim that people have risen from the dead (the Christian churches main claim is that Jesus did rise from the dead and that this report comes from eyewitness accounts from believers and non believers) and contra Kierkegaard – you can base your faith on a historical event and none of the events in the Bible involve contradictions (such as God becoming man, etc). God being both a (God) and non-a (non God) at the same time and with the same respect, would be a contradiction, but this is not the Christian story at all.
As said earlier in this paper, the best way to deal with the Pomo issue is not to have gone that route in the first place. But this does not mean I am not interested in dealing with the important issues that postmodernism has raised. One issue already covered is the hubris connected with “certainty”. As argued earlier, it strikes me that it is just as arrogant to claim that no one has knowledge or capital T truth, as it is to claim that one has all knowledge and that with certainty. The modest fallabalistic position sits in between the two extremes. It offers that there is truth which can be discovered and known, and that some knowledge can be had with certainty. It does not suffer from the arrogance of the extreme Pomo claim or the positivist one. The Christian faith does include the possibility of defeasibility as well. The apostle Paul says that if Jesus has not risen from the dead, then we (Christians) are fools and liars as well. So if someone can give credible evidence for the non-resurrection of Jesus, such as his bones, etc, then Christianity would crumple around it. More could be said on this but that is for another paper.
Another complaint made by postmodernism is that of the exclusion of the other. As typically framed, this usually means that people of color, woman and third world people have been excluded from the table of opportunity, respect and honor. They have not been included in the intellectual mix at the university level either. Derrida uses the margins around the text to illustrate that which is not said, which is left out, and uses that to show how the marginalized of society have also been left “unsaid”. As we showed earlier, Pomo somehow counts certain ethical concerns as givens and privileged. The idea that all points of view should be tolerated and included comes out of certain philosophical and or theological camps and therefore cannot be considered as a given without argument. If there are no Meta narratives then there are accordingly no Meta ethics. If one starts with the lack of absolutes, then it is impossible to see how concern for “others” should be privileged over abuse for “others”. All one can really say is that our tribe or community thinks we should be inclusive, but since our view is only one of many, then we have no right to assume that others must take that point of view. In fact we should honor that community’s right to abuse “others” as an equally valid point of view in our relativistic tribal world.
Now I see ethical concerns as a real issue, and the Pomo view undermines its own valid concerns. The only way to make the issue of “others” a serious issue is to make a Meta-ethic which is sufficiently grounded and therefore justified and one which holds each community/tribe and each individual responsible for the care for the “other”. I offer the Christian faith as an example of how this can be done. The ethic is grounded in the very nature of God himself. It is the very nature of God to be loving, and the Bible asserts that each person is themselves created in the very image of God. God holds each person responsible for how they treat others. In the Hebrew Bible there is special attention paid to the care for the “stranger in their midst”, for the widows and orphans. This theme is repeated numerous times in the New Testament as well. As each person is made in the image of God, then each person is worthy of respect and concern from all others.
In conclusion, this appeal to Christianity is open to many questions, rebuttals and these are all fun arguments for further papers and discussion, which I invite. We have tried to limit the scope of the problem, set criterion for what would qualify as a way out, and argued that the Christian faith meets that criterion. I have tried to take the Pomo concerns seriously, and hopefully have offered some sense of dealing with those issues in a fair way. Obviously many people will view Christianity as hopelessly pre-modern or worse yet, modern, and yet many others might and have seen this as a very viable option.
FAITH IN THE SUBJECTIVITY OF BEING:
A FEW MUSINGS ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NIETZSCHE, HEIDEGGER, AND THEIR COLLECTIVE FAITH IN THE SUBJECTIVITY OF TRUTH.
Nietzsche and Heidegger shared an epistemological position. This position, subjectivity, was critical to the development of their belief systems. This paper will examine their arguments for subjectivity and then point out several problems with this position, problems I believe both understood. I will show how these problems drove them into their own “leap of faith” in order make sense of their position.
It is sometimes thought that while small people can frustrate someone for a short time, truly great people can frustrate people for generations. A backhanded compliment is perhaps the best way that I can offer respect to people whose position I rarely understand and almost never agree with, but I am intrigued by their ability to shape the world. Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger were in my mind twin souls, influenced by the western philosophical tradition and perhaps a bit of the eastern tradition as well and Heidegger was certainly moved greatly by Nietzsche. While they shared many affinities, I want to focus on the theme of subjectivity shared by both men. This subjectivity built on the earlier thought of Kierkegaard and a few others, and in reaction to Descartes, truly blossoms with Nietzsche and explodes with the work of Heidegger. Nietzsche is the grandfather of Postmodernism, Heidegger is the father, and Derrida and the rest are standing on the shoulders of these two giants. Having said that, this paper will examine the argument for subjectivity and point out several problems from within their positions, which I believe they both understood, and show how this drives them into their own “leap” of faith to make sense of their position.
Nietzsche’s epistemic position is generally called perspectivalism. Armed with his famous saying that “there is no truth – only interpretations”, he argued that contrary to the “sacred” tradition of western thought there is no “truth” out there, that all our notions of the same are merely power plays and that no one’s perspective is any closer to some supposed “objective” truth than any other. Heidegger quotes Nietzsche favorably when he says that “Therefore, what is necessary is that something must be held to be true – not that something is true.” (1) Sounding similar to Voltaire’s axiom about the existence of God, Nietzsche makes a hard distinction between the functionality of truth and the reality. Following Kant, the distinction between what is perceived and what something really is in itself is a hard distinction. All we really have is our own perceptions. Instead of objective reality, all we really have is an “army of metaphors”. Nietzsche then argues that since there is no real objective truth, all claims to the same are attempts to gain power over others. Language then becomes a weapon, used artfully by the church in particular to subjugate the “plant” man. All the values of western Christianity are making mice out of men, and for Nietzsche this “slave morality” demeans human beings and must be recognized and tossed aside. Heidegger argues that for Nietzsche truth was an estimation of value, and thus could and must be revalued, with the strong man transcending all such perspectival values. Heidegger notes that
“The representation of something as in being in the sense of the constant and the stable is a valuation. To elevate what is true of the “world” to something permanent, eternal, and immutable in itself means at the same time to transpose truth to life itself as a necessary condition of life. Yet if the world were constantly changing and perishing, if it had its essence in the most perishable of what perishes and is inconstant, truth in the sense of what is constant and stable would be a mere fixation…Truth is an illusion.” (2)
Here it is clear that Heidegger and Nietzsche are both relying on Heraclites and that the notion of fixed objective standards is rejected by both. For Heidegger in particular on this point, the world is Being and non-Being. Being in the world is always Being towards death or non-Being. There is always change for Being. Yet Nietzsche is arguing in a sense that this fiction of truth is a helpful one, at least in a limited sense. It is something that humans use in a pragmatic way to get what they want. Heidegger might add here that this is a fiction created by the One/the They, and is part of inauthentic Dasein. For him this inauthentic need for fixed permanent markers is part of the fallenness of Dasein. It is something that must be overthrown by ones resoluteness to not seek false security in so called absolutes.
Heidegger says in one of his important essays that “truth is here driven back to the subjectivity of the human subject. Even if an objectivity is also accessible to this subject, such objectivity along with subjectivity, still remains something human and at mans disposal.” (3) I am glad that he appeared to make a small concession here to objectivity but as we shall see later, he has to redefine objectivity to make it a type or subset of subjectivity. Subjectivity with attitude! He goes on in the essay to argue for a radically new understanding of the word truth. For him it means disclosedness, or Being being uncovered. It is a relation in Being, and for Being and by Being. In all of this what he is trying to say is that truth is Freedom! He notes that
“Freedom, understood as letting beings be, is the fulfillment and consummation of the essence of truth in the sense of the disclosure of beings. “Truth” is not a feature of correct propositions that are asserted of an “object” by a human “subject” and then are “valid” somewhere, in what sphere we know not; rather, truth is disclosure of beings through which an openness essentially unfolds.” (4)
This statement reflects his dissatisfaction with the western tradition, especially medieval, on the dependence on propositional statements as evidencing truth. Whether in philosophy or theology, both traditions had historically emphasized logical correctness as proofed in propositional statements. Assertions to statements that reflected reality were valued while obviously the converse was disdained. But Heidegger wants none of that. For him truth and untruth are both disclosed within Dasein. They do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in the world as the byproduct of Dasein and therefore they reflect all of Dasein’s own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore he thinks, perhaps following the German Idealist school here, that the heart of truth is Freedom, and by that he means that the world of Being creates a “space”, a location, where individual Dasein can create and become authentic. What is unfolding here? For Heidegger it is the existence of Dasein itself. There is no essential self as posited by most western philosophers, but rather Being’s own existence is its essence. He relates this to truth by saying that the essence of truth is the truth of essence. His explanation of this thought is that rather than finding truth in something outside of ourselves, we instead should search for the “real” truth which is that Being is the priority here, and correctness only exists within the space created by Being. This connection is not accidental for him. In Being and Time he emotes
“There is truth only in so far as Dasein is and so long as Dasein is. Entities are uncovered only when Dasein is; and only as long as Dasein is are they disclosed. Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever – these are true only as long as Dasein is. Before there was any Dasein there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. “(5)
Heidegger thinks that mystery pervades the Being of Being. It pervasive strains keep us in wonder at awe at the world and at the existence of the world. To attempt to make a stand here, or on this, is mistaken. All of this is changing and locks Dasein into the classic mistake of focusing on a tree and missing the forest. The essence of man then is only his fleeting and transient existence.
So for Nietzsche and Heidegger both, they are at war with the tradition of western philosophy and western Christianity, which both saw as intimately and horrifically entwined. Transvaluation for Nietzsche or Authentic life for Heidegger are both available when one departs western Christianity in particular. Perhaps it is the western traditions emphasis on the Bible as God’s very word, and the long, (and in the scholastic period – painful) development of rationalistic theology. Both were raised in Christian homes but both radically depart the faith of their families. Nietzsche’s famous dictum of the death of God finds somewhat a sympathetic reading from Heidegger’s own desire to find an authentic life that is pointedly having no reference to the Christian God. It is the point of a different paper to argue that their interest in eastern religious motifs was also influential here, but I think that it is germane. Both men share a common affiliation for a radical subjectivity and this epistemological position begs for critique.
Kierkegaard’s focus in the Fragments is the simple statement “Truth is Subjectivity”. Nietzsche picks up the theme with his perspectivalism, and certainly applying the concept in a more forceful way that I imagine the Dane would have ever imagined. Heidegger, like he seems to do with all previous notions, recasts the argument as another way of describing the existence as essence of Being. For both the latter men, propositional truth and correspondence theory are the enemy. The enemy is recognized by its ruthless quest for non-contradiction and internal coherence. Arguments which depend on a precise and rigorous usage of terms and standard definitions are anathema. The rallying cry by contrast is the strength of the strong man transvaluing all values and/or the resolute character of Dasein creating space and freedom. What is one to make of this?
From the perspective of one who is trained in the very tradition despised by both Nietzsche and Heidegger, both philosophically and theologically, I see many problems. The first seems the most obvious and yet is not considered problematic by people from within the perspectivalist traditions. Once one says something like “Truth is Subjectivity” or that truth is perspectival or that it is about disclosedness of existence than it seems that one has immediately and fatally contradicted oneself. If the statement is false, then no one needs to pay attention, but if the statement “Truth is Subjectivity” is true, then no one needs to pay attention in this case either. Subjectivity by definition is relative to the individual. It cannot be corrected by another. So if Kierkegaard is correct here, and then all he really saying is that opinion belong to a subject. And since he himself is a subject, then at the end of the day all he is doing is emoting his opinion, which has no intellectual hold over anyone else. The same is also true with Nietzsche’s perspectivalism. As soon as he says “Truth is perspectival” he traps himself. Even if true all he really is doing is sharing his opinion, which has no more weight than any other opinion. And with no justification available outside of the individual to ground the opinion, all opinions have the same value. This is perhaps seen in a most ludicrous statement by an intellectual disciple of the subjectivist tradition, John Caputo, when he states that “the truth is – that there is no truth”. (6) Far be it from me to deny that there is much in knowledge which is in fact perspectival, but the denial of anything more than perspective forces the position into the rather problematic dogma of declaring that all truth is what they say it is, that it is just opinion, and that of course their opinion is to be valued as true!
All of my critique here depends on the very tools that are attacked by this same tradition. The possible response here is that I am assuming the very notions that I am attempting to defend. A certain circularity then arises. How can one defend the truth of the law of non-contradiction without using it? The answer is of course that you cannot. The problem for the subjectivist is that one cannot deny the truth of it without using it as well. It is not uncommon to hear post-modernist say something like “well I prefer to use both/and thinking instead of either/or thinking”. This is often seen as being the epitome of open-mindedness and tolerance, as opposed to the dogmatism of the absolutist traditions. But in speaking the statement one is employing the very concepts that the speaker is decrying. I admit the circularity is a sticky problem, but I think that it is resolvable with much less damage than the subjectivist position alleges.
A second problem for the subjectivist position is the very ability of a Nietzsche or Heidegger to see the problem that both claim to see, given their presuppositions. Let us assume that Nietzsche’s perspectivalism is true. If all we have is opinion then how is Nietzsche’s position protected from his own analysis and believed to be in fact a “correct” view of the world? Imagine a river which has many large rocks along its bed. Human beings are on the rocks and as they look around they perceive that all of them are surrounded by water. Even though they are on rocks none are able to reach the surface to get a clearer picture of their predicament. The very claim of the subjectivist position is here described. No ones rock is any bigger than any other person’s rock. If this description is correct then how is Nietzsche able to claim that even though everyone else is under the water, he somehow has transcended the river and is able to see that all are under the river. Given his starting presuppositions he cannot say this. All he really can say is that according to his view, all are under the water, but he has no way of saying anything more.
Heidegger seems to dodge the problem in certain ways. His notion of disclosedness of Being is all fine and well, but it seems that the notion that both truth and falsehood are both part of Dasein is problematic. To even make that statement involves some sense of normative judgment. This entails some standard outside of oneself (dare I say, objective?) in order even to make the distinction. Heidegger could reply that the individual Dasein can make that judgment without anything outside of themselves, but if truth and falsehood are both disclosed in and by Being than how can one distinguish between the two? This type of argument seems to be problematic for the whole Heideggarian position. For Nietzsche the question of language is the Alice in Wonderland question – Who is to be master? For Heidegger language is the house in which Dasein exists. But for language to be meaningful it must have some referent. It also by definition must include the notion of non-contradiction, excluded middle and so on. Even German! Of course, Heidegger does a marvelous job of taking historic and normative terms and redefining them in such a way as to fit his philosophy. He certainly exercises freedom when it comes to his use of language. But that is not really the point here. Heidegger uses argumentation and non-contradiction in his arguments against foundationalism. So he uses key parts of foundationalism to attack the same.
Without exploring the point in depth, one could also point out the real possibility of ethical nihilism being very problematic. If there are no objective realities to discover, and no essential self which can be developed morally or otherwise, it seems Heidegger is left with morality as merely one of the byproducts of the world, which is differentiated into multiple realities and culture. Each culture is busy shaping the individual Dasein’s within its circle. And like Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, with no ones view being any more correct than any other, each culture is then correct no matter what. The issue of Heidegger’s involvement and ugly postwar silence with the Nazi party here seems to illustrate the point. As Eric Lemay points out “If humans are Dasein, meaning they have no common essence, then there is no reason to expect that a particular group of Dasein will respect the rights of another. The only sense of security a Dasein has comes from their given society…” (7) This theme is taken up by E. Hirsch, Richard Wolin and others. The nihilistic ethical mindset of so many of Heidegger’s intellectual children seems to illustrate this all too well. The irony is that the contemporary post moderns build so much of their case on care for the “other”. But subjectivism undermines real ethical concern for the other.
It removes any transcendent ethic which might ground ethical judgment that applies to all cultures at once. Hence our culture might decry the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, but that is just us expressing our opinion. It has no more weight than that, and it certainly does not justify intervention of any sort. This perhaps fueled the Levinasian reaction currently underway.
The last question I want to briefly address is the one I started with – the question of the faith of Heidegger and Nietzsche in their own respective versions of subjectivity. Considering that the pro-forma objection normally is so devastating, and given that it has had almost no effect, then one must seek out the basis of such a contradictory position. In his article entitled “Heidegger Deconstructed”, author Peter Leithart quotes a pastor who attended a Nazi summer camp in 1933. The pastor states that Heidegger argued that one must abandon the second article of the Nicene Creed when he says
”One must start by rejecting the first article, that the world was created and sustained by a God, that what exists is merely an artifact, something that has been made by a divine craftsman. This was the origin of that false devaluation of the world that contempt for the world and denial of the world – and the source of that false feeling of comfort and security, founded on subjective ideas about the world that are untrue compared with the great noble awareness of the insecurity of existence.” (8)
Heidegger argued that there is a “great noble awareness of the insecurity of existence”. To me this is a newer version of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith over the ditch. My understanding and scope of knowledge of Heidegger’s thinking is minimal at best. But there really isn’t an argument against God here, rather a mystification of nature and a seemingly irrational leap. As I mentioned before I admire both of these men in their ability to dramatically shape the culture, and I believe that they were both brilliant intellectual minds, and I know that they were quite conscious of the very contradictions that I briefly elicited earlier. In light of that, an existential leap of faith makes sense. But this is not the Kierkegaardian leap toward faith in God, rather it is a leap of faith in the Ubermensch for Nietzsche and the authentic resolute towards death Dasein for Heidegger. It seems like I have brought up too many issues to adequately discuss in such a short paper and there is just one more. Why is the thrown, fallen, errant inauthentic Dasein worthy of such trust? How did these conditions obtain? Where did Being come from? Why is that more attractive and worthy of trust that the Christian God? All of these questions seem worthy of attention and probably have been talked about in numerous books and articles that are beyond my current range of knowledge. It seems to me that a fallibalistic foundationalist position, one that is open to a degree of subjective knowledge, could grant some of Nietzsche and Heidegger’s concerns without taking the pendulum quite so far. And while I take faith seriously, it does not necessarily follow that faith must be irrational, even though that is Kierkegaard’s and so much of modern culture’s bent.
1) Nietzsche. Heidegger, Martin. Harper/Collins. San Francisco, CA. 1961. P.56.
2) Ibid. P.58.
3) Basic Writings. Heidegger, Martin. Ed. By David F. Krell. On the Essence of Truth. Harper/Collins. San Francisco, CA 1993. P. 124.
4) Ibid. P. 128.
5) Being and Time. Heidegger, Martin. Harper/Collins. San Francisco, CA.1927. P. 227/269.
6) Heidegger for Beginners. Lemay, Eric. And Pitts, Jennifer. Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc. New York, NY. 1994. P. 102.
7) Heidegger Deconstructed. Leithart, Peter. Http://www.visi.com/~contra_m//cm/reviews/cm13_rev_heidegger.html. P. 2.
Zen Buddhism – History and Development
Monks sit in perfect silence. Each one deep in meditation on the void/sunyata, or emptiness of all things. Another monk silently walks around the others, peering, and then pausing before one, he gently taps his shoulder with a huge club and suddenly slams it on the back of the docile monk! Why was this done? The offending monkʼs breathing was incorrect, or perhaps his back posture was off a little. Welcome to the world of Zen.
Like other versions of Buddhism, the roots of Zen are a bit murky. Buddhism spreads from India in the 6th century b.c. to China (Chan), Thailand, Cambodia and so on and eventually to Japan. One popular legend has Bohdidharma (Around the 5th century a.d.) coming out of Persia to India. He learned Mahayana Buddhism and then preceded to China, where he introduced the martial arts techniques to the moribund monks. In the 12th century a.d. Myoan Eisai (1141-1215) is said to have started the Zen movement in Japan and was the founder of the Rinzai School. Dogen founded another Zen school, the Soto, around 1225 a.d. Later other Chinese Chan masters came to Japan to further the development of the Zen teachings. Though many Japanese teachers made the reverse claim – that it was Japanese master who went to China to properly teach Zen. This is all irrelevant because the traditional teaching of Zen, negates the existence of the Chinese, the Japanese and even the Buddha himself.
The primary source of Zen in the western world was D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) who promoted the teachings of the Rinzai School. He would be a huge influence on
former Christians like Anglican minister Alan Watts and Roman Catholic Monk Thomas Merton.
The Zen understanding of enlightenment or satori, does not come through knowledge or understanding but rather only through direct experience of oneness and emptiness through meditation. Thus the role of scriptures is minimized in Zen circles. The teacher has the experience, which is passed through to the student, without any dependence upon rational understanding or creeds or scriptures. The famous Zen quote “I owe everything to my teacher for he has taught me nothing!” reflects the ideals of Zen followers. However Zen is but one part of the Mahayana school, so some of those writings are still influential. Over the differing periods Zen teachers were writing and using different sutras (scriptures) such as the Lankavatara sutras, the Diamond Sutras, the Lotus sutras and others. Collections of different koans (ko-an) also became critical. Koans are riddles or questions without answer, which are designed to show the inadequacy of the mind or rationality to achieve enlightenment.
Like virtually all other Asian schools of thought, Jesus is a non-existent category, but since the introduction of Asian religions into the western world, most have subsequently included Jesus in their tradition in various ways. The Mahayana school already had in place the concept of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened master who out of great compassion, chose not to go on to nirvana but stay in the world to teach. Modern Zen teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh have developed this connection in books like Living
Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. Selling to an audience that knows very little about Jesus and virtually nothing about the Buddha, Hanhʼs books have helped promote the pluralistic notion of different spiritual masters, from different cultures and times, who in reality are teaching the very same thing.
Hanh reduces Jesus to a Buddhist arahant or master, who taught mindfulness (sati) like the Buddha himself. Much like Deepak Chopra who had hinduized Jesus in his book Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, Hanh takes familiar parables and sayings and the story of Jesus, and removes them from their Jewish context and redacts them through Buddhist eyes. For example in Going Home – Hanh states:
“There was a person who was born nearly two thousand years ago. He was aware that suffering was going on and in his society, and he did not hide himself from that suffering. Instead, he came out to investigate deeply the nature of suffering, the causes of suffering. Because he had the courage to speak out, he became the teacher of many generations. The best way to celebrate Christmas may be to practice mindful walking, mindful sitting, and looking deeply into things…”
Christmas is transformed into a life just like the one at a Zen retreat center or monastery. So there is no formal view of Jesus in Zen, but there are attempts to write him into Zen categories by modern propagandists.
Historic Buddhism in all its forms is unclear on whether or not there is a god or gods. In his rejection of much of his Hindu roots, the Buddha in one context ignored the question of the gods. Hinduism has both polytheism (330 million plus gods) and monotheism (typically among Hindu scholars the one god is Brahman – who is without any attributes or nirguna). So one might read Buddhist texts or speak to monks who are formal atheists, such as Theravada Buddhists. But in another context, the Buddha
spoke of evil spirits in his Great Renunciation account, so Buddhists arenʼt really atheists as seen in the western context of materialists or naturalists. Buddhist stories and legends are replete with numerous divine beings being in attendance when the Buddha would teach. Another concept that makes his teaching clear in one way is that when a Hindu would come to moksha or liberation through the Jnana or knowledge path – it was usually understood as the liberated one coming to understand that all the atmans or individual things perceived in the illusory universe, were really only one thing – Brahman. So the drop was part of the ocean.
The Buddha departed dramatically from Hinduism is in his doctrine of anatta – a complete denial of an individual self or essence. There is no drop, and if there is no drop, then there is no ocean. For many Buddhists, especially the Theravada, Buddhism is atheistic. By the first century A.D. the Mahayana or Greater Vehicle Buddhists had come to the forefront of the Buddhist movement. This “second turn of the wheel” rejected much of the Theravada teachings and insisted that there was an essence in all things that could be called the “Buddha self or Buddha consciousness”. This essence sounded very similar to the classic Advaita Vedanta version of Hinduism espoused by people like Shankara and even more so by Ramanuja. The Bodhisattvasʼ become divine beings much like the Buddha himself who is often now seen as a divine being, especially by lay people.
In the particular case of Zen – teachers like Suzuki and others seem to want to have it both ways. In his interaction with alleged theists like Thomas Merton, Zen coheres with theism, while in other contexts he will pronounce the lack of a god. This is
confusing to the western mind, because it expresses a direct contradiction, which is exactly Suzukiʼs goal – ʻThere is a god and there is no godʼ is an antinomy held comfortably by the Zennist. How could this be? Because Zen might be the most strident attack on rationality that the world has ever seen. The purpose of Zazen (sitting meditation) and the koans – is to show the impossibility of achieving enlightenment by using the active, rational mind. Rationality is a product of the illusion of maya – which is the world. The mind becomes a ʻmaya machineʼ creating the illusory world at all times. Thus the very things which people are striving for, which causes suffering according to the Buddhaʼs four noble truths, are literally nothing or sunyata. There is no mind – there is a mind. The Zennist revels in the contradictions. The question of a god is open or not open. Depends upon the teacher and the moment.
There is more here to think about as well. Suzuki like other Zen writers often describes his primary thoughts being “not-two”. This of course leads commentators to say that Zen is monistic. But Suzuki rejects the label and insists that not two does not mean one. This is all because we all have a “dualistically-trained mind”. So our problem is the way our mind sorts things out. Obviously rejecting Kantian types of categories, Suzuki emphatically denies the role of any “parts” in understanding the One. From the outsider perspective, the One seems very similar to Brahman – Nirguna, but without the name.
So there is a supreme being and there isnʼt a supreme being. Welcome to Zen.
Like all other versions of Buddhism the human problem is ignorance. We live in maya – the dream or illusion. We are suffering because of our desires or thirst for things and stability. Because of annicca (the doctrine that everything is changing) those things we desire can never satisfy because they do not remain the thing that we initially wanted. The first two of the Four Noble Truths express these ideas and then explain that the only solution to the problem, which is found in Noble Truth #3, is to cease all thirst and desire. This even includes the thirst or desire to cease all thirst and desire! The Hinduʼs agrees with all this but the Buddha thought that the Hinduʼs had a fatal flaw in their thinking. The Hindu notion of the permanent self or atman, which reincarnates over and over again millions and millions of times, is seen as the reason why Buddhism is a better vehicle for moksha or liberation. According to the Buddha the greatest cause of desire and thus suffering is not the outside world, but rather the persistent notion of “I” or self. Statements such as “I am going to the store” or “I am hungry” both show that the root cause of all our desires is the notion that I exist. Therefore the best liberation will be the one that gets to the heart of the problem most effectively. The doctrine of anatta or no atman and no self then is an improvement over the Hindu path.
The concept of salvation as seen through Western religious eyes is historically absent in all forms of Buddhism including Zen. To the ancient Hindu, moksha or liberation from the wheel of birth, death and rebirth (Samsara) meant the drop realizes its true self, drops all notions and actions of separateness and “rejoins” with the ocean.
The Hindu belief that atman equals Brahman (Tat Tvam Asi- that art thou) doesnʼt really hold to a sense of rejoining but the metaphor is seen as helpful, because there never was any real separation in the first place. The drop was always the ocean and the ocean is all there actually is, so no motion is even possible. As seen in the above section however, the Buddha rejected the permanent self or atman and maybe Brahman as well.
So what does moksha mean to Zen Buddhism? Moksha to the Buddhist originally meant nirvana – which means the snuffing out of a candle flame. In other words liberation was found in the extinction of the self. Without any self – there would be no desire and no suffering that comes from desire. In the Holy Teaching of Virmilkirti the Buddha taught that a good Bodhisattva does not give a hungry person food, as that only helps feed the illusion quite literally. This is called the “sympathetic compassion” which the Bodhisattva is enjoined to abstain from. Instead the enlightened Bodhisattva should teach the hungry person that they are non-existent, which alleviates the “real” problem, not the temporary problem of hunger that stems from incorrect thinking in the illusory world. This is called the “great compassion”.
In more modern times, especially as Buddhism moved into the western world, the complete extinction of the self as the understanding of Nirvana has morphed into a much more user – friendly idea. Now Nirvana is a place, of sorts. Filled with blessing, and peace and joy, of sorts. Nirvana is beyond description or even words (ineffable). It defies all description because all forms of duality are part of maya and words are inadequate to explain. Buddhists are reluctant to go beyond vague language, as
someone might confuse Nirvana with a Jewish or Christian idea. But this is problematic, as it seems clear that Buddhism accommodated itself to preexisting beliefs in the western world. Many serious thinkers such as Ken Wilbur (A Brief History of Everything) talk about eventual morphing of all things into the One. In many ways this lines up perfectly with the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism and brings up even more confusion
Buddhists have a variety of beliefs concerning the end of the world. Like their Hindu forerunners some Buddhists emphasize the end of a cyclical age or aeon. Each cycleʼs end corresponds with another ageʼs birth. Others believe that a messianic type of individual, Lord Maitreya, is waiting to descend to the earth and bring about a renewal of the dharma, meditation and Buddha consciousness. Concerning Heaven and Hell, many Buddhists believe that there are multiple layers of heavens and hells that the individual must go through because of their karma from past lives. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Buddha lived for a million years. Other Buddhists teach that all human beings used to live for 80,000 years but due to decadence and wrong (unskillful) behavior the life spans and physical prowess continually was diminished. Someday as the dharma is ascendant again life spans will expand to 80,000 years again. Summary of Beliefs
Zen Buddhists are one of the Mahayana sects. Although their roots are murky, they are clearly distinct in Japan by the 12th century a.d. Their two main techniques are sitting meditation (zazen) and koans. The koans are used to show the inadequacy of
the mind in achieving enlightenment or Satori. Once the mind is abandoned through the koan, and then zazen and other forms of meditation are used to experience the emptiness and or the Buddha nature or consciousness. Zen Buddhists also affirm t karma (action) and reincarnation, although since there is no personal self (anatta) then their view of reincarnation differs significantly from Hindus and other groups. Buddhists also believe in dependent origination, which means that nothing exists independently and permanently. All things exist because of other things. All things cause and in turn are caused by other things. In other words this is cause and effect or karma in action.
Zen Buddhists are at best ambivalent about the existence of God, and have no official opinion on Jesus and other Christian beliefs. Zen accepts the belief in Maya, the illusory status of all we perceive and especially the most serious illusion of them all – the illusion of the permanent self or atman. The Four Noble truths are the core teaching of the Buddha:
- 1) All of life is suffering. Because of annicca (the transitory nature of maya) each
person grasps onto what cannot bring liberation.
- 2) The cause of suffering is desire or thirst. This means that because we are attached
to the things of this illusory world, we cannot be liberated and we suffer because the
things we are attached to are constantly changing.
- 3) The solution to the problem is the cessation of attachment or thirst or desire.
Liberation can be achieved through a complete detachment to all things in the world and ultimately through detachment to your own existence.
4) The mean by which one becomes detached is through the Eight Fold Noble Path. This series of 8 “rights”, such as right thinking, right actions, right consciousness and so on are part of the meditative process by which one can detach from the illusory existence and achieve nirvana.
Nirvana has come to mean a place of bliss and peace as Buddhism has reached into the western world and cultural milieu.
In the Bible we are commanded to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This verse as well as many others enjoins the believer to use our mind that God gave us and to use it well. By contrast the Zen practitioner has been told that his mind is the enemy and only its ultimate destruction will bring about a release from the world of suffering. Since it seems so important to the evil one in his deceptions that people do not think – it strikes me as important that we bring people to think through what they have been told. Two Biblical examples seem pertinent here. In the many conversations we see between Jesus and his opponents, one consistent strategy seems to come up over and over. Virtually every time someone would ask Jesus a question – he would ask him or her a question back. This tells us that at least part of what Jesus is doing is getting his questioner to think through the heart of the issue, as opposed to the often-poor question that was asked. For example in Luke 18:18 a ruler asked Jesus this “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, ʻWhy do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.ʼ” Jesus goes on to give him an answer but it is clear he wanted to get at a larger issue that the one the
ruler had brought up. Another biblical example is Paulʼs interaction with the philosophers on Marʼs Hill in Athens in Acts 17. In this example while Paul does grant some obvious points such as “I see that you are very religious” (which in Athens was the equivalent of arriving at the airport in Las Vegas and observing that people in Las Vegas like to gamble!), for the rest of his discussion he goes on to contradict virtually everything that the Athenians held dear. Reminiscent of Isaiahʼs interaction with pagans in chapters 42-48 – Paul notes the obvious – since God is the creator of the universe – he does not dwell in houses nor does he need to be fed or bathed! Both of which are activities you can see in pagan temples all over the world to this day. In plain language, the creator does not need the creations help.
And this is exactly where our discussion with the Zennist must start. Romans 1 says that when people turn away from the creator, they turn to worshipping idols and immoral activities. But important to that degradation is what it says in Romans 1:18 where Paul points out that the pagan “suppresses (or makes void) truth in unrighteousness.” This active tense verb “suppresses” is something I have seen over and over again in dealing with Buddhists and many others. Whether it is through mindless zazen or through drugs, the mind is the problem and it must be averted if not outright destroyed. The only way one can make sense of the extremely contradictory notions of Zen teachers is that the mind that God gave the Zennist – is ignored or destroyed. The eight fold path will say something like “right thought”, but when one sees how this is understood in the Buddhist world it is not an injunction to think better, but to try and avoid thinking all together. For example I might be upset at evil in the
world or in my family or something like that. Thinking of these things brings me suffering. The solution is not to do something in the world to change the evil to good or to do away with the evil entirely. The solution is to realize (right thoughts) that the evil and the evildoer are non-existent and therefore there is nothing to be upset about. The softer American friendly version of Thich Nhat Hanh makes the statement that the evildoer is also really nothing but the “One” and therefore one can have compassion for the evildoer. But this softer version does not make sense even within Buddhism itself. Even wonderful concepts like compassion are really nothing – the earlier Buddhists tried to live this out more consistently. In this sense when I talk to American Buddhists I try to make them better Buddhists by pointing to the early Buddhist writings and stories to show how the Buddha taught against compassion in the Christian sense. In this way we must properly allow the Buddhist teaching about something like compassion – as mentioned earlier in the discussion about the Holy Teaching of Virmilkirti – and what Jesus would say about compassion.
This was wonderfully illustrated by Ravi Zacharias in his book “The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus talks with the Buddha” where Jesus and Buddha are juxtaposed in a conversation with a dying prostitute. According to classic Buddhist sources, the Buddhaʼs response would not to be sympathetic to her condition of dying slowly and painfully from Aids, but rather that she should recognize the illusory nature of the disease which stems from a false idea that she exists in the first place. By contrast Jesus speaks of real love and mercy for one who is in such a horrible state. If she were hungry, Buddha would teach her that her stomach’s growling is merely part of the real
problem in that she thinks she exists and this is why the symptom of hunger persists. Jesus would feed her. Jesus would give her shelter, or water, or medicine or whatever she needed. The Buddha ridiculed this notion and enjoined the Bodhisattva to take the “greater path” of teaching non-existence.
This more authentic Buddhism doesnʼt sell well to a western audience, so it is imperative that we help people see the real difference between Jesus and the Buddha and not the deliberately muddled version of someone like Hanh. Even in a post Christian culture like ours people still believe that one should help others in need and Buddhism becomes an untenable position in light of that. Even pagans still have the conscience that God gave them concerning others (as Paul mentions in Romans 2) and so Buddhists suppress their real teachings to win over a new audience. They are very successful at it so far. There is thousands of Buddhist centers and organizations operating in the western world today. This is a good example of what the Buddhists call “upaya” or skillful means. Upaya is the practice of lying well, not in the usual clumsy political manner, but with such skill that the one who has been lied to is not even aware of it. Like many other false religions, Buddhists use an ends justify the means type of argument to rationalize their dishonesty.
Another good witnessing tip is to see whether Buddhism successfully deals with the problem of suffering as it claims to, or perhaps it makes the problem worse. Many years ago I was on a television show entitled “Americaʼs Most Wanted”. I was interviewed because of my knowledge about a certain cult leader who had left the country. The showʼs executive producer was a long time correspondent who had spent
many years living in Thailand while reporting on the Vietnam War in the late 60s and 70s. While the cameras were being set up he looked at me and said, “I just hate when you Christians think Jesus is any better than the Buddha or Krishna or Lao Tzu or anyone else!” Then he smiled and said, “I bet we are going to have an argument arenʼt we?” (I have had some version of that statement thrown at me literally hundreds of times-it does really help one as a witness to know about the other beliefs and religions in the world!). I said to him that since he had live in Thailand for many years, which is a predominantly Buddhist culture, how come it was alright for a Thai farmer to take his eight year old daughter and sell her to a whorehouse in Bangkok, knowing what was going to happen to her?” His response was chilling. “But Bill you donʼt know how good that is for the local economy” (Word for word quote!) I looked rather disgusted at him and he immediately backed off – “well maybe its not the best thing…” But his knee jerk response is rather telling. He knew what is wrong and what is right, but his first response was to attempt to defend one of the great evils in the history of this world.
If I were a Buddhist I can defend that practice all day long. For example, since karma is merely a version of what goes around comes around – then perhaps the girl was a male rapist in a previous life. Or since the world is an illusion (maya) then there is no little girl being raped and no rapist. Or perhaps in the Americanized version of Buddhism then one could say that she chose to be repeatedly raped, drugged and destined to die of Aids or something, for her personal “growth”. Buddhism thus requires one to look past the obvious (the evil of destroying little girls) and see the “real” problem
– which is of course that the little girls are persisting in the most noxious notion – that they actually exist.
If one does not believe in the reality of good and evil – then the notion of sin is a lost cause. It is imperative for our Buddhists friend and others to understand that evil and suffering are not illusory, but rather the results of peopleʼs individual choices. In one sense the Buddhist notion of karma already affirms this, but then the truth is suppressed by the “higher” understanding of maya. This is where I see the suppression mentioned in Romans 1 is clearly in play. The Buddhist knows it is wrong to rape and kill a young girl, because they have the same conscience God gave everyone. But their teachings force them to suppress that knowledge and somehow end up rationalizing great evil. How could Buddhism be seen as an answer to the problem of suffering?
And it seems quite obvious that the centers of the Buddhist world donʼt exactly remind one of Shangri La – the mythical Buddhist paradise. In this same vein Zen was very much a part of the Bushido or warrior tradition within Japanese culture. It was a critical part of the militaristic culture that led to wars with Korea, Russia and eventually World War 2. So the notion of the peaceful benign Buddhist monk (who by contrast was probably trained in some form of martial arts!) is a nice western myth concocted through skillful means. One Buddhist tract I have enjoins its followers to try to do no evil deeds and no good deeds, since both are karma and will prevent one from achieving moksha. But even there is still a hint that the Buddhist still knows the difference between good and evil.
Much like the false hope of booze and drugs in my youth, the things that I was trying to run from, were always still there when I came down from that “high”. My best solutions were no solution at all – they only masked for a very brief time the real problems I was dealing with. The real problem that was causing me suffering, the abusive drunken home that I grew up in, was only made worse by my best attempts at resolving the unlivable problem. Buddhism does not advocate drugs (although this certainly never stopped modern Buddhists like Jack Kerouac or Michael Foucault) but in the same way meditation only truly hides the real problems in this world. Becoming detached from this world does nothing to actually solve suffering, as much as it might provide the meditating individual a temporary dodge from its reality. Teaching others to do the same thing only worsens the problem. Let me give a type of analogy. The giant trash dump in Manila is called “Smoky Mountain”. This hellhole is home to approximately 200,000 people. As a shame based culture, many Filipinos have resorted to pretending that it doesnʼt exist. A wall was once built so that a rich neighborhood would not have to see the reality of the horror story in the next barrio. Many Filipinos here in the states have been told that the problem has been solved. This “I donʼt see it so it canʼt be real” mentality has persisted for who knows how long and through many modern administrations. My own Filipino son who was raised in a different poor part of the Philippines went to Smoky Mountain a few years ago and came back crying and mad. “Why doesnʼt the government do something about this?” I had to explain his own culture to him. One group of people at Precious Jewels Ministries does not choose to look the other way and pretend. They have been serving the people
affected with Aids for over 25 years now. They provide hospitals, hospice and an orphanage for the survivors of the afflicted. They have brought tremendous help to so many there, but the government has fought them for many years. To have people helping in Smoky Mountain means there must be a need for help there, and this cannot be so – since there really is no problem. (Sarcasm alert!)
It was not Buddhist detachment, which brought PJM to Smoky Mountain. It was the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which moved those ladies who have reached out to the poorest of the poor. It is this same Gospel that tells us that there really is an answer to the sin and suffering problem. It is this same Gospel that informs us that Godʼs love is so great – that Jesus came to die for us when we were at our worst behavior. In the same way Christian hospitals, orphanages and schools have been established virtually all over the known world for two thousand years now. Buddhism has been around for 2500 years now and historically there were no hospital, orphanages or schools. Modern Buddhists, like their Advaita cousins, have learned to mimic Christian charity in order to gain an audience in the western world. But in both cases their own foundational thinking undermines such things, which is why history paints such a different picture than the modern sales-pitch. If the world is maya – why build an orphanage? There are no orphans, there is no problem.
But if the world is real, then you have real problems that demand real solutions. I had one Buddhist tell me once that when you are detached then you are better able to help with whatever problem. Americanized Buddhism at its finest! I went on to explain what the Buddha had actually said about both detachment and helping. I also pointed
out the logical contradiction of being detached and then still caring. This didnʼt move him. I pointed out the contradiction of the Koans being used to show the inadequacy of the mind, when ironically each of the koans are constructed using rationality, so that they are without answer. Imagine one coming up with the koan – “What is the sound of two hands clapping?” Oops. Back to the drawing board for that one.
Following Christ does not mean suffering goes away. It might in fact bring more suffering as one might be called to endure much suffering as a witness to a fallen world. But believing in Jesus does give a context for suffering that makes sense and enjoins the believer to use their God given gift of a mind to think creatively of how to help those who are suffering. Ultimately the point of the Cross of Jesus Christ was to deal with the suffering and evil that we as human beings have caused and are still causing. Buddhism claims to have the deeper answer to the problem, but that answer leads to the denial of any actual problem at all. Telling a rape victim that there was no rape or rapist so she needs to get her mind right (Southern for “Right Thought”) can hardly be seen as a virtuous or helpful position. By contrast telling her that this evil act was an affront to a Holy God, who will bring about justice in this life or the next, is a comforting thought. Telling her that we are all one and that she needs to have compassion for her rapist as he is part of her (Hanh) is hardly helpful or even desirable. By contrast Christians can tell her that there is real good and evil and that even though we suffer in this fallen world now – because of what Jesus did on the Cross-for her, she can find comfort in this world and the next.
Zen Buddhist Bibliography
Bach, Marcus. Major Religions of the World. Abingdon Press. New York, NY 1959
Cunningham, Lawrence S., Kelsay, John. The Sacred Quest – An Invitation to the Study of Religion. 3rd Edition. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ 2002
David-Neel, Alexandra. Buddhism – Its Doctrines and Methods – The Classic Explanation of Buddhist Tradition To The Western Mind. The Hearst Co. New York, NY 1977
de Bary, William Theodore. The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. Vintage Books. New York, NY 1972
Gaskell, G. A. Dictionary Of Scripture And Myth. Dorset Press. New York, NY 1988
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. Riverhead Books. New York, NY 1999
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Living Buddha, Living Christ. Riverhead Books. New York, NY 1997
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
Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia Of GODS – Over 2,500 Deities of the World. Facts on File Publications. New York, NY 1993
Kopp, Sheldon B. If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him – The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients. Bantam Books. New York, NY 1976
Lee, Anthony Man-Tu, Weiss, David. Zen in 10 Simple Lessons. Barrons Education Services. Hauppauge, NY 2002
Mather, George A., Nichols, Larry A. Dictionary Of Cults, Sects, Religions And The Occult. Zondervan Publishing House. Grand Rapids, MI 1993 Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New Directions Book. New York, NY 1968
Novak, Philip. The Worldʼs Wisdom – Sacred Texts of the Worldʼs 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
Robinson, Richard H., Johnson, Willard L. The Buddhist Religion – A Historical Introduction. Wadsworth Publishing Company. Belmont, CA 1997
Sekida, Katsuki. Zen Training – Methods and Training. Weatherhill. New York, NY 1975
Smith, Huston. The Illustrated Worldʼs Religions – A Guide To Our Wisdom Traditions. Harper/San Francisco. New York, NY 1994
Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism – Sources and Interpretations. Wadsworth Publishing Company. Belmont, CA 2002
Life Editorial Staff. ED The Worldʼs Great Religions. Time Incorporated. New York, NY 1963
Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. Vintage Books. New York, NY 1957 Wilbur, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Shambala Publishing. Boston, MA 2001
Zacharias, Ravi. The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks With Buddha. Multnomah Books. Colorado Springs, CO 2001
History and Development
We are told that one of the oldest cultures in the world produced the oldest religion in the world. Or maybe it didn’t? The Mesopotamian region, which later becomes the heart of the Persian Empire (modern Iran), is the birthplace of the religion of Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) or Zoroastrianism as it is commonly called. Scholars are completely divided on the time frame for Zarathustra. Some place him between 1500-1100 BC while the only evidence not based on supposition places him in the 7th century (630 B.C.). It seems that a big part of the controversy is contingent on how committed one is to showing that Zoroastrianism was instrumental in shaping incipient Judaism and later Christianity. Those with the older date see the Persian prophet as the earliest Monotheistic religion, who introduced the concepts of Heaven and Hell, a physical resurrection and other doctrines, which later become a part of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Those with the earlier date have more historical data on their side. Either way it is clear that Zarathustra did teach a unique form of monotheism, although not in the sense that Judaism, Christianity and Islam taught.
Most of what we know about the early stages of the religion is based on supposed oral tradition and not reliable. What we do have as documentation from other sources gives us a time frame somewhat similar to the Renouncer age of India, which produced both Gautama Buddha and the Jains. (6th century B.C.) .
The Aryans of Persia had invaded the northern part of India prior to 1200 B.C and the language and religious practices of both areas are quite similar. Zarathustra’s
“monotheism” was a huge influence on or was influenced by Darius and other rulers during the Achaemenid reign of Persia. The priests of the religion at the time were called the Magi. Cyrus II later suppressed them and that period of history shows a uneven acceptance and major differences between the religion and the rulers.
Zarathustra was a priest in a culture that was committed to paganism. There were innumerable deities for every conceivable natural phenomenon. In the midst of this Zarathustra taught a single deity as all -powerful creator of the universe. This being he called Ahura Mazda. A theological controversy developed over time as Ahura Mazda was seen by some as the chief of all other deities, which included the Amesha Spentas (Bounteous Immortals), which later are included in the nature of Ahura Mazda as characteristics or attributes of his deity. The other creatures, which were not ultimate but yet still worthy of worship were the Yazatas – which are often perceived as angels. Another persistent issue is the notion of dualism within the deity. Early outside reports talked about the dualism of the religion with Ahura Mazda as the good God who is opposed by Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, who is evil personified. Both are seen as eternal and many believe this dualism laid the foundation for the later development of Manichaeism.
Another key point in development was the invasion of Persia by the Muslims in the 7th century A.D. Through the sharia/dhimmitude process, the majority of the Zoroastrians were either converted or killed. A large group of them went to India (the Parsis) and this has been the center of the Zoroastrian world through the years. While maintaining a presence in their ancient home, it can be seen that the more rigid monotheism of Islam has influenced the Zoroastrian monotheism and the
deities started a slow process of dropping out of the limelight. However ideas like reincarnation and other more overtly Hindu ideas have become a part of the religion for some of the believers.
Zoroastrians have some unique identifying ideas and symbols. There are numerous fire temples, which are sacred, and only the believers are allowed access to them The priest’s role is to keep the flames lit at all times and recite prayers, hymns and mantras to invoke Ahura Mazda’s blessing. The believer will wear a “kusti” or cord, which has been knotted three times. The knots symbolize and remind the believer of “Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds”. The believer also wears a “kadre” a sacred garment on the upper body. Since the creation of Ahura Mazda was first spiritual and then material, the elements are seen as sacred and should not be violated. The Towers of Silence, which are used in deposing of dead bodies, symbolize this. The body is full of evil and disease, so to put it in the earth pollutes Ahura Mazda’s creation. The same is seen with burning the body. So the body is exposed and left to the ravages of animals and the weather. This is done in the Tower so that the whole process will be seen as sacred.
Who or What is the Religious Authority?
The scriptures of Zoroastrianism are collectively called the Avesta (Book of the Law). The primary section is the Yasna, which includes the Gathas, which are considered to be the only section actually written by Zarathustra himself. The Gathas are primarily hymns and liturgical readings. The other sections are the Yashts, which are hymns to the various deities, the Vendidad which contain a description of the evil deities and other additional collects, the Visparad, Nyaishes,
Siroze and Afringas. Many scholars believe that the current Avesta is perhaps only one fourth of the actual writings, with much of the ancient works destroyed by Alexander’s army and later by the Muslim colonizers. The Avestan language of most of the texts is considered a holy language, and the Pahlavi or Middle era Persian language was used for some of the later writings. The oldest manuscripts extant of the Avesta are dated 1288 A.D.
Who is God/Gods?
As mentioned in the development section, this is not a simple question. Zoroastrians today will argue that theirs is the original monotheistic religion. Many will point to a non-Zoroastrian scholar like Boyce, who has helped shape, their own self-identity. But the evidence for an evolutionary development of the understanding of who or what God is in the Zoroastrian faith is compelling. Like most cultures in the world, Zoroaster was a priest in a pagan culture, similar to that of their Vedic neighbors in India. Nature was a panoply of gods, representing virtually everything that is, both objects in the universe and or concepts. Zoroaster had a vision given by Ahura Mazda of the true nature of the universe, that there is one Supreme God who created all things. But like their Hindu neighbors the monotheism of early Zoroastrian thought was seeing Ahura Mazda as the Supreme of all the different gods, which one could also see in Greek mythology and elsewhere as well. The Amesha Spentas are seen as stand alone beings and represent differing aspects of creation:
Vohu Manah – Good thought – connected to animals
Asha Vahisthta – Justice and Truth – fire and energy
Kshathra – Dominion – Metal and minerals
Spenta Armaiti – Devotion and Serenity – the earth and land Haurvatat – Wholeness – waters
Ameretat – Immortality – plants
Spentu Mainyu – Creative Energy – humans.
Later on the Seven, which are opposed by evil and destructive spirits, become incorporated as part of Ahura Mazda’s own attributes, but many today would think of them as something like “archangels”. The dualism of God is also a debatable point. Many think of Zoroastrianism as two evil “twins” both born of Ahura Mazda – Spenta Mainyus as the good force and Angra Mainyu as the evil force. These spirits are either the cause of ethical dualism in the heart and minds of human beings or they are the cause of cosmic dualism in the universe. The Zoroastrian community seems divided historically. Are the “twins” just aspects of God? Are there really two identically powerful but polarized spirits at war in the universe and or the human heart? The Gathas can support both. Early writings show an antipathy between the daevas (the Sanskrit word for the gods of India) and the Ahuras. But because of normal human syncretistic tendencies some of the gods can be seen in both. In short the majority of Zoroastrians will say that Ahura Mazda is the one ultimate God – but the historical reality seems to lean towards henotheism rather than monotheism. Ahura Mazda is symbolized by Fire, but is not embodied in fire so it is wrong to call Zoroastrians fire worshippers as some have. Ahura Mazda is best seen symbolically in light and heat so believers will direct their prayers towards those icons of Ahura Mazda.
Who are Human Beings?
Unlike their alleged spiritual descendents the Jews and Christians, Zoroastrians see people as having free will and the ability to choose and act without being encumbered by something like sin nature or original sin. Not only that, but humans like all of creation participate in some meaningful way with both the spiritual and physical elements in the universe. This means that they in some way share the very nature of Ahura Mazda and will some day return to that nature. Each people group on the planet was placed in its culture and religious group by Ahura Mazda and therefore conversion in or out is discouraged. The faithful Zoroastrian is enjoined not to reject the world as many of their ascetic neighboring faiths had, but rather to hold up and defend the forces of order and goodness against the tide of disorder and falsehood. One who makes bad choices and helps spread Druj or disorder ends up in Hell. One who makes good choices ends up in Heaven. But these are merely temporary holding places with universal restoration being the ultimate end.
What is the problem with the world/people?
Similar in some way to the Hindu concept of dharma – the word Asha (truth) stands for the right way of seeing the universe. Asha can also mean orderly functioning – so to follow Ahura Mazda is to see the orderly function of good works and thoughts and deeds in the universe and act accordingly. However Asha is opposed by Druj (falsehood) that is perpetually put forth by the evil spirits to disrupt the universe. These are not specifically tied to morality, but also represent the very order of nature and the universe itself. The problem then comes because
the evil spirit, personified in Ahriman and his consort of malevolent deities/angels seek to destroy and impede the nature and goodness of the universe. Human beings become lazy or malevolent and thus do not participate in the active ordering of the universe. Thus the spread and influence of Ahriman’s works and ideas continues on. What is the solution to the problem with the world/people?
Zoroastrians have a savior concept built within the system. The Saoshyant will someday come and will come and bring Asha to the universe. Contrary to popular mis-belief, the Saoshyant was to born of Zarathustra’s own seed and not of a virgin. People who invoke the threefold mantra of Good works, thoughts and deeds, help this incrementally. In the ultimate sense of things – the entire universe and all with in it – even the evil Ahriman and other malevolent deities, will all be restored to the presence and participation in the very nature of Ahura Mazda. Universal salvation and reconciliation is therefore a presumption of the faith and makes the practice of conversion in or out of the religion unnecessary.
There are few Zoroastrians in the world today. Most place their numbers under 200,000. To read their literature is to see both a pride at their longevity and a frustration of the sense that they are losing their community. Much of the literature is filled with raging tirades against conversion (primarily because of new age adherents in the USA), and a bit of syncretism such as the idea of reincarnation or the question of whether Zoroastrianism should seen as THE universal religion, etc. But the largest issue within the community today seems to be a liberalizing trend towards a lukewarm faith, with a loss of traditional identification, and this is best
exemplified in the practice of marrying outside the faith. Since the Zoroastrians pride themselves as being a non-missionary religion, birth rates and marriages are the primary way of keeping the community quite literally alive. But the syncretistic nature of the postmodern world is undermining the standing of the religion within the community itself. You can hear this complaint among many people from many, many other religious communities as well.
To the Zoroastrian apologist (most likely a non-Zoroastrian atheistic or other anti-Christian skeptic – as seen in the internet movie “Zeitgeist”, etc) the notion that Judaism and Christianity borrowed heavily from and are therefore dependent upon Zoroastrianism is a very controversial notion at best. There is no literature showing this at all. Boyce and others depend on language similarities between the Indo- Aryan languages (Avesta and Sanskrit) and thus date the Avesta within the time frame of the Rg Veda (1500 – 1000 B.C.) but the dating link is weak and there are numerous scholars within the field of Persian religion who disagree. One might also add that the Hindu scriptures are notoriously hard to date as well. So one weak strand being connected to another weak strand does not necessitate a strong cord at all in this case. This view is also contingent upon the late dating of Hebrew accounts of Abraham, Moses, and so on. Most conservative scholars think that Abraham probably lived around 1800 B.C. approximately and therefore Moses would have lived around 1400 B.C. or so. If this were the case then even an earlier date for Zoroaster himself would not be early enough to be an influence upon the Jewish religion. One could make a better case that early Jewish thought influenced Persian
thought. But either way there would have to be an actual fact driven case made and the evidence for Zoroastrian influence on Judaism is non-existent.
But the response to a layperson would not need to dwell upon this, unless it came up. The average layperson believes that there is one God, who created everything, who loves good over evil and order over chaos. These are all good starting points for fruitful discussion. The modern monotheistic belief of the average Zoroastrian is quite helpful here. Both the Zoroastrian and the Christian believe that God desires what is good. Both believe that God has called us to do what is good. Yet the Zoroastrian is stuck with the dilemma of seeing the human capacity of free will as the testing ground for the ultimate war between evil and good. But it is the overwhelming sense of evil and disobedience where the Christian parts company with the Zoroastrian. How is it that we can know what is good and what is right, yet still choose to do what is destructive? This points to something more dramatic than disorder or evil spiritual influence – it points to the failure and rebellion of the human heart and mind. The Zoroastrian like others knows adultery is wrong, knows it is destructive, knows that Ahura Mazda has condemned it – and yet still chooses to do so. This can lead again to a discussion of the need for a Savior. The Savior concept in Zoroastrianism is a rather irrelevant notion. At the end of the age the savior will come and usher in the final reconciliation of Ahura Mazda and its creation. But the concept of personal salvation is missing. If the human will is truly good and free, then it follows that there would be need for a personal savior. Conversely if the problem with the human heart/mind is right at the center of the problem – then the need for a personal savior is paramount. This is where the
Christian can introduce Jesus as the only solution to the problem of the fallen human heart. The atonement of Jesus on the cross is a shining example of the creator God’s holiness and love all in the same place and at the same time.
Another potential witnessing point is the concept of ultimate reconciliation. If this is the case then our alleged free will is just an illusion. It means that our choices to do good works, thoughts and deeds are ultimately no different than any contrary actions. The unrepentant murderer is just as reconciled as the one who takes care of the poor. So all the effort the Zoroastrian puts in does not make any real difference in the long run. This undermines what they truly believe about a real difference between good and evil. They know there is a real distinction yet in the end it all washes out. So while not as vacuous as the Hindu notion of Maya which makes the world an illusory dream, the Zoroastrian eschatology amounts to the same end. The Christian can respond by bringing up the eternal nature of God and therefore the eternal characteristic of holiness and sin/rebellion. If good and evil truly are eternal, then they cannot be dismissed but rather are upheld by God’s eternal character. This means there must be something different brought in to reconcile the dilemma – which again points us back to the atonement.
As with all the other religions – one must love and prayer for our Zoroastrian friends and neighbors.
Bach, Marcus. Major Religions of the World. Abindon Press. New York, NY 1959 Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London, UK. 1979
Boyce, Mary. Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. Rowland & Littlefield. London, UK. 1984
Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrianism: A Shadowy but Powerful Presence in the Judaea- Christian World. Friends of Dr. Williams. UK. 1987
Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism. An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Sussex Academic Press. Suffolk, UK. 1998
Kotwal, Firoze M., Boyd, James W. A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion. Scholars Press. Atlanta, GA 1982
Malandra, William W. An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion. Readings from the Avesta and Achaemenid Inscriptions. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN 1983
Mather, George A. Nichols, Larry A. Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions And The Occult. Zondervan Publishing House. Grand Rapids, MI 1993
Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition. Boston, MA Element Books. 1991 Moulton, James H. The Treasury of the Magi: A Study of Modern Zoroastrianism.
Oxford University Press. London, England. 1917
Parrinder, Geoffery. Ed. World Religions From Ancient History to the Present. Facts on File Publications. New York, NY 1971
Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Harper San Francisco. San Francisco, CA. 1991
Zaehner, Robert C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. Phoenix Press. London, UK. 1961
History & Development
Vampires and Goths and Wiccans oh my! America has witnessed over the past few decades a tremendous revival of an ancient religion or perhaps instead it has witnessed the birth of an entirely different religion, patched together from numerous sources. The problem is that the participants themselves aren’t sure and for the most part don’t even care. Driven by pragmatism and their united hatred for organization and institutional religion, the movement spreads through many diverse tributaries, such as Whole Earth Expos, Environmental gatherings and of course the internet. Collectively the movement goes by different names; Neo- Pagans, Wiccan/Witches/practioners of the Craft, Goddess Worshippers and there are very few things which bring them all together.
Inspired by the writings of anthropologist Margaret Murray, who taught that the Christian movement had driven underground the surviving elements of an ancient pagan religion, British civil servant Gerald Gardner started a campaign in the late 1940’s to overthrow Britain’s 500 year old prohibition against Witchcraft. The success of this movement inspired Gardner to come “out of the broom closet” as it were and declare his allegiance to this “ancient path”. Many others followed. Soon Raymond Buckland and various others brought the Craft to America where it started to flourish. Many groups such as the Covenant of the Goddess and the Isis movement incorporated and sought status as legitimate religions. Feeling both emboldened and paranoid the fledgling movement kept its rites and rituals secret and yet numerous books from heretofore-unknown publishers were disseminating
a plethora of titles. The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler and other books started to get national attention. Academics like Marija Gimbutas from UCLA and Joseph Campbell ‘s numerous PBS specials gave intellectual credence to the idea that the ancient world had worshipped a Goddess and not the Father of Christian or Jewish Faith. This ancient world was marked by peace, love and a passionate care for the Mother of all life – The Earth. Only when the male god showed up out of the Middle East, driving the peace loving religions from their rightful place, did the world go into the destructive cycle of violence and rape of the planet. Propelled by Gerald Gardner’s musings on the persecution and an a-historical claim that perhaps 9 million witches were killed by the evil Christian church during the “Dark Ages”, movies like the Burning Times were played over and over again on national TV. Spurred on by this newly achieved victim status the wiccan movement spread gathering numerous former Christians who were disillusioned by the loveless atmosphere of their Christian experience and intrigued by the idea of aligning themselves with those “martyrs” who loved Mother Earth, respected the environment and were open to a more tolerant view of homosexuality and a more inclusive attitude towards other religious paths.
On the other hand, scholars like Hutton and Eller have pointed out the discrepancies in Gardner’s story, his infatuation with Alistair Crowley the famous occultist (who was also admired by L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology) and his fascination with sex and masonry. Many of Gimbutas’s and Campbell’s peers in their academic fields cast major flaws about their work, thus undermining the academic support and in the past couple of years even the magic ultimate victim number of 9 million wiccan
“martyrs” has been largely abandoned. But the larger attitude of the participants is what is important here – none of this discussion really matters. The Craft is driven by practice, not by truth or doctrine. If a spell “works” then the practitioners are justified in their beliefs. If it doesn’t work then there is always a different spell or formula to bring about the desired results. Ancient religion or postmodern pastiche, the average believer has an opinion and no seeming desire to find an answer.
As eclectic as the Neo-Pagan movement is, there is no Holy writ of any kind. Some are interested in ancient Hindu or Buddhist texts, while others have no interest in anything outside of their own intuition. In fact it is the driving force behind the whole movement that each practitioners is guided by their own understanding and intuition. One can learn from those who have practiced longer or from other sources but ultimately what teaches you is your own connection to the divine within the self, the community, nature and the universe itself.
The most prevalent attitude about the Bible is that it a homophobic, racist, exclusivist text, while at the same time it has been changed innumerably and suffers from various contradictions. Most of course have never read it and show no real desire to do so. It is enough to know that the Bible is full of “hatred” for homosexuals and other marginalized peoples.
The only somewhat similar authority that might be parallel is to certain well know authors/traditions, such as fans of Margot Adler or Starhawk, Gardnerians (Gerald Gardner), Alexandrians (Alex Sanders) and others. But if one presses a
controversial position taken by their favorite author, it is all too easy to just dissent and move on. The most important writing that is involved is that of the Book of Shadows. Each practitioners journals their new- found teachings, ideas and spells, which give practical formulas for obtaining what each participant desires. The Craft celebrates “Desire” which is defined as that which each person wants, without guilt or shame, and only that which harms is prohibited. This is seen in the Wiccan Rede – which states “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. While some claim this is an ancient rule found through out the various religions, its more likely origin is something that Gardner borrowed from Crowley. But again regardless of its dubious ancient pedigree, Wiccans feel that this is the ultimate moral guideline and thus are free from sexual restrictions of any kind. So quite literally each person seeks out their own path, their own authority, their own divinity and power and ultimately their own desires. And no other can criticize anyone else.
At a meeting of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago 1993, I attended a meeting taught by Phyllis Curott, head of the Covenant of the Goddess. She illustrated all this by saying, “I am a Wiccan, and this is what Wicca means to me, but I cannot tell anyone else what it means to them.” Then the person next to her said the same thing and the person next to them and so on. This went all around the room. The point was clear – each person decides for himself or herself and no one can decide for another. The Autonomy of the self is prized above any religious text.
Interestingly enough, the phenomenon of Jesus being morphed into virtually all the world religions is also present with some Wiccans. Jesus is not the Second Person of the Trinity who incarnated in human form and died for the sins of the world on the Cross, then later resurrecting from the dead, giving instruction to His church and then ascending to Heaven. In that they talk about him, Jesus is an enlightened one or Master Wiccan. He did not do miracles, because pagans do not believe in miracles per se, rather that a wise one can be in touch with the natural (not supernatural in any way) forces of the universe and nature and thus bring about any action that is desired. So Jesus can thus be recast as a Master healer, lover of nature, lover of the marginalized in society. Jesus loved the environment, was fine with homosexuality and is open to all religious traditions and paths. Since the Bible serves no role in the understanding of the person of Jesus, each teacher of the Craft can then paint an entirely new picture of Jesus, suiting their own styles and intuition.
Supreme Being – God
The pagan communities have many varied beliefs concerning who or what God is. One thing they do hold in common is the Goddess. Called by many names such as Isis, Dianna, Brigid, Kali, and so on, the Goddess represents all that is. We all come from the Goddess and will all return to her. Some see this in a classically pantheistic way, seeing the Goddess in every bit of nature, while others see the goddess and a male god (usually the Hunter or Pan) representing the duality of life in nature. The
Goddess again is not a supernatural being, but rather the embodied Spirit within all of nature. Thus all acts of Magick are seen as natural expressions of natural forces. Since the divine is in all, much like the Ramanuja school of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, then each creature is in charge of its surroundings and environment. The divine self within is in charge of its own thoughts and decisions and this again justifies the autonomous nature of the movement. Even pagan groups that feature a priesthood of sorts are such that the priestess/priest is seen as a guide, not an external authority. So the question of a supreme being is muddled and context specific – Some wiccans appear pantheistic, others polytheistic and others seem monotheistic. Like the maze that is Hinduism, it all depends on which witch you are talking to. One other thing of great importance in their passionate fear and concern over being connected to Satanists in any way. Satan to them is a Christian invention, a slur of their beloved good god Pan, and not a part of their beliefs or rituals.
Much like the Romantic Movement from which some of its sources sprang, the Goddess movement believes that the human condition is essentially good, reflecting its divine nature. The problem then is external and like Rousseau, many pagans believe the church and state are the problem. Left to themselves the “state of nature” of human beings would be peacefully dwelling in earth sensitive communities in tune with the Goddess and each other. But institutional religion and hierarchal political society have created the world’s problems. Many if not most Wiccans are extremely left wing in their political sensibilities or outright anarchists.
“The People” can then be trusted to follow the Rede and the world will be turned to the Goddess and balance will be restored. This belief in the natural status of humans being seen as good allows for sexual openness and freedom. Many rituals are done in the nude (sky clad) depending on the group. Like pagans of old, sacred sex can be seen as cooperating with the natural processes of nature herself. Clearly this notion of humanity has no place for the reality of sin, or transgression or rebellion against a holy God. As we will see later this is a major point for fruitful witnessing.
This is perhaps the most offensive idea to most wiccans. By definition if one is a divine spirit embodied in flesh then there is no sense of needing salvation at all. If one is not a sinner in any way, then there is nothing to be saved from. If the question then is what about the afterlife, many pagans talk about going to the “Summerlands” which is a paradise where, depending upon the teacher, one learns and waits for another reincarnation or one might travel to other planets, dimensions, etc. Most pagans believe in some form of reincarnation but it is not systematized in any recognizable way. There are some whose version of reincarnation is somewhat similar to the eternal return of the Atman of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, where the eternal Atman merely sets down one set of clothes and picks up another, but the essential Atman remains the same. Others draw from the Buddhist well and talk about a non-essential self with the scattered parts (will, consciousness, form, etc) being strewn through out the universe in different
manifestations. Like many other pagan ideas there is absolutely no consensus on the afterlife. Are the Summerlands analogous to Nirvana? The Christian Heaven? A reborn planet? Who knows for sure and the pagan doesn’t seem to be too concerned about it.
Another point to consider here is the idea of karma. In classic Asian thought, Karma means action and the gurus teach that it cannot be thought of in terms of good or bad, positive or negative and so on. This is because all of reality is Maya or the dream/illusion. One should not be caught up in whatever happens (karma) in the dream. But for the Wiccans, Karma is more often thought of as the good and bad things one does in this life. This westernized view of the ancient Asian thought, sees the world not as an illusion (especially for writers like Starhawk!) but the earth is real and our actions are critical. So critical that Goddess worshippers refer to the “three-fold law of karma”. This indicates their notion that whatever one does will be returned to the individual in this life or the next three times over. So Wiccans pronounce how they would never commit violent acts, or other examples of bad behavior, as the fear of having that come back serves as a brake on potential behavior. The Wiccan thus promotes that the threefold law and the Rede are sufficient to keep Wiccan behavior in a positive mode always. Yet ironically there are many examples on the net and in Wiccan literature of sexual abuse in the covens and other overt “evil” or negative acts. So like all human beings the Pagans don’t have a foolproof method of checking bad behavior. This also is critical when it comes to witnessing to them.
As mentioned in regards to salvation, Pagans are not really focused on end times types of issues. The focus is very much on the here and now. How can I solve my problems now? How can we establish peace and harmony here in this incarnation is much more on their minds. Especially those in the Starhawk camp see political activism towards homosexual issues, environmental concerns, social justice for oppressed peoples as much more important than any afterlife or eschatological beliefs. Another point to make on this is that Pagans revolve their rituals and worship of the Goddess around 8 nature-oriented events. These are: (All dates for 2009)
Imbolc/Moonrise – February 1. Spring Equinox – March 20 Beltane/Moonrise – May 1 Summer Solstice – June 20 Lughnasah/Moonrise – August 1 Fall Equinox – Sept 22 Samhain/Moonrise – Oct 31 Winter Solstice – Dec 21
As seen here these events correspond to natural events for the Sun, Moon, harvest and so on. Pagans believe in the cycles of the earth and nature and this cycle is past, present and future. The universe is Divine and eternal. There generally is no end in sight. The concern then is not at all similar to a Christian notion of the universe having a beginning in the Creation and a close at the apocalypse. Rather it is about
finding power to get ones desires fulfilled in the earth today. Balance between your own desires and bringing about harmony in nature and the environment are the overarching issues.
Summary of basic pagan beliefs
Pagans/Wiccans/Goddess worshippers are an eclectic group by definition with very few common beliefs other that their belief in the Goddess embodied in nature and the universe. Each practitioner of the old ways or Craft is an authority in themselves and through their wisdom and knowledge of the various rituals and spells, can obtain power to obtain the desires of their hearts. The divine can be seen in the Goddess alone, or in the dualism of Goddess and male consort, or those can be just seen as metaphors for the divine forces in the entire universe. The worship and religious rituals are centered on natural events like the Solstices and harvest. The Wiccan Rede and the threefold law of Karma serve as checks on potential bad behavior. The movement is autonomous to the extreme, with the largest meaningful group being a Coven of up to 13 and all larger affiliations being voluntary and for fellowship not ritual. Sexual and personal freedom is paramount for the followers of the Craft. There is no priest or priestess or authority over each other than the divine within. The afterlife is a brief time of waiting for reincarnation or instruction. Wiccans do not believe in the Devil or Satan and generally look down on what is called Black Magick, which may bring harm and thus violate the Rede.
It is important to remember that in the early days of this new religious movement that virtually all of them have some sort of Christian background, at least in a nominal sense. While that is changing and Pagan “Sunday “ schools and home schooling is a growing phenomenon, there are still some Judeo/Christian sensibilities in the Goddess movement. This is critical in reaching them with the Gospel.
Wiccans denounce the belief in sin and in objective defined evil with their teachings, but virtually every one I have ever talked to or read is passionate about injustice, wars, mistreatment of the environment and so on. The alleged Burning Times, concerning the murder of nine million witches is a great example of this. Even though they are backing away from the number – it is still part of their sensibility that is wrong to murder. On the other hand their autonomous beliefs betrays them here. If each person decides for themselves what is right or wrong and no one is an authority over the divine within me – then how can one judge the inquisitors or Salem magistrates for the alleged murdering of witches – whatever the actual numbers? If murder is objectively wrong then there is a law higher than the autonomous self, and the pagan denies this. But what about the Rede and the threefold law? Well human beings of all religions, philosophies and cultures have proven themselves to be wonderfully pliable when it comes to such things. “Harm” like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. If autonomy is what the Craft makes of it, then one is free to rationalize any and all behavior. This obviously is not unique to the Wiccan, but is ubiquitous through out human history. But there is
another more basic problem; The Wiccan movement has made its stand on its close association with the Goddess through nature and its cycles. If there is one thing that nature DOES NOT teach – it is non-violence towards other livings things. As the Transcendentalist author (nature worshippers thimself) quipped, “Nature is red in tooth and claw”. Nature does not teach one to love ones neighbor. Rather it teaches that one should eat ones neighbor, especially the weak and infirm. Nature does not teach that one should respect others. Rather it teaches that the life cycles themselves involve a constant picture of life and death struggles with untold numbers of living participants dying while others live off them. In both cases the Goddess worshipper is betrayed by their own key ideas of connectedness with nature and autonomy. The real ancient pagan cultures truly connected with the patterns they see in nature as manifested in rituals of sacred sex, sacred dance and most critically – sacred death/sacrifice. The modern/postmodern pagans adore and venerate sacred sex and dance but eschew sacred death. But death is an obvious part of the natural cycle and it is usually random, senseless and violent. So as Paul teaches that even the Pagans have a God given conscience (the Law written on their hearts in Romans 2), then it is important for the Christian witness to take seriously the moral concerns as best as one can about things like murder, then push the pagan to take seriously how that is a moral issue. Is murder truly up to the autonomous person’s choice? If so there is no moral concern. Is murder always wrong at all times in all places, including the murder of witches in medieval Europe? If so then there must be an explanation for the universality of the moral code. Nature cannot be a solution as nature is filled with “murder”/natural acts every day on a huge
scale. If humans are just part of nature in the meaningful sense the pagans assert, and violence is normative throughout nature, then the pagan cannot assert that murder is wrong when the contrary evidence is ever in front of us. Since murder is objectively wrong, and the witches own concerns reveal that, then the only explanation for an external, objective, universal law is an external, objective, universal lawgiver. As Kant and Lewis and others have well argued, the fact of moral universals is proof of a larger source for that morality. It cannot be left to subjectivity or perspective or cultural construction, for that opens the door to murder being acceptable and even moral in different contexts. Most pagans are passionate pacifists and do not want murder to be optional. But if the only real candidate for a larger source for the universals is nature, which is itself full of random violence, then the pagan is grasping for a foundation.
Here the Christian Gospel can be asserted powerfully. Because the Bible does take sin/evil seriously, we can find common ground with the Goddess worshippers concern over injustice, murder and mistreatment of women, etc. This also reveals to the Wiccan that the Father God of the Bible, who is so often caricatured in Goddess literature (e.g. the male God of the Bible allows men to abuse women) is the very one who tells the husband to love his wife and even give his life for her. It is the Father who condemns the abuse of women in the Mosaic Law. It is the Father who condemns murder of the innocent and demands protection for the widow and the orphan and the alien immigrants. as well as the Creation accounts showing the Father’s concern for the environment,
We, just like the pagans, can show our outrage for the destruction brought to the world and to people, but unlike the pagan, we know why this is so. We are not inherently good, but tragically flawed. The very same people who can affirm their love for their children can moments later kill the children of others. The very same people who desire justice for themselves can at the same time be so unjust to others. Hypocrite! The pagan cries out. True enough I respond. That is why I need a savior. And that is why you need a savior. It is not enough to have a law, whether from Moses or the Rede. All of us fail and that is why the world looks as it does. As Chesterton pointed out, the doctrine of original sin is empirically verified. The Wiccan denies the title but mourns the actuality. Since this is not a problem of wisdom or knowledge or enlightenment (we both know what is right and what is wrong), then there must be another solution. Pagans only offer more of the same cycle that has allegedly always been. Where is the hope in that? People will get better in their next incarnation? Where is the proof of that? If nature is eternal then we have already been reincarnated millions of times at least. Where then is the improvement? We seem to be even more proficient at murder then we have ever previously been. The cycles of nature stand mute about human change. But the incarnation of the divine into the natural world, as in Jesus Christ who is God incarnate in the natural form of mankind, is an interruption to the pagan cycles. Jesus whose heart for the hurting, his concern for the poor and weak, his concern for women and others is all on record in the New Testament. But Jesus came for much more than that. He came to pay the price for our sins, for our destructive choices that we all do and for the overwhelming destruction that we ourselves have brought
upon this world. So famously the Bible says – For God so loves the world that He gave his only son, who whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. It is the Fathers desire to save us from ourselves and our own destruction. This is why the Cross, (so hated in pagan circles except as a Magick Talisman or symbol) is so important. In the Cross the pagan can see both God’s own sacrificial love, the love of Jesus who give his life for others and the justice of God as well. Not in personal karma payback of some sort but that the Lord himself took on all our failures and rebellion, and made a way for others to benefit from his mercy. So instead of paying for my actions (read Karma) I can receive real forgiveness and grace. The Father offers this gift to the world and we can choose to accept His grace. In the actual physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead we see the power of God over the cycle of birth and death. This is the same power that can change anyone, including this hypocrite, into a person who can love and show mercy to others. The Rede says harm none, but nature is full of harm. Jesus says the two greatest things are to love God (who is outside of you) and your neighbor (who is likewise outside of you) If you as people are the divine then it is the divine that is responsible that is responsible for environmental destruction, abuse of women and children and mass murder in the world. If you are the divine then the divine is part of the problem. (The divine killing the divine at Auschwitz, Rwanda, Kampuchea, etc???) But if the divine is separate from us then God can be the solution since He is not part of the problem.
So in the Gospel message the Wiccan can find real hope for change for individuals, a promise of a true paradise where the wolf will lie with the lamb and the boy can
play with the snake. A time where is no tears, because we will be different and the true Lord will live with us.
Berger, Helen A. A Community of Witches – Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. University of South Carolina Press. Columbia, SC 1999
Berger, Helen A, Leach, Evan A, Shaffer, Leigh S. Voices from the Pagan Census – A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States. University of South Carolina Press. Columbia, SC 2003
Curott, Phyllis. Book of Shadows – A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. Broadway Books. New York, NY. 1998
Cunningham, Scott. The Truth About Witchcraft Today. Llewellyn Publications St. Paul, MN 1997
Frost, Gavin & Yvonne. Who Speaks for the Witch? – The Wiccan Holocaust. Godolphin House. New Bern, NC 1993
Gardner, Gerald. Witchcraft Today. Magickal Childe Publishing, Inc. New York, NY 1954
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of The Moon – A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford University Press. New York, NY 1999
Lewis, James R. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY 1996
Manning, Al. G. Helping Yourself With White Witchcraft. Parker Publishing Company. West Nyack, NY.1972
Moura, Ann. Origins of Modern Witchcraft – The Evolution of a World Religion. Llewellyn Publications. St. Paul, MN 2000
Ravenwolf, Silver. Teen Witch – Witchcraft for a New Generation. Llewellyn Publications, Woodbury, MN 1998
Ravenwolf, Silver. To Ride A Silver Broomstick- New Generation Witchcraft. Llewellyn Publications. Woodbury, MN 2008
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance – A Rebirth of the Ancient Tradition of the Great Goddess. Harper San Francisco. San Francisco, CA 1999
Summers, Montague. Witchcraft and Black Magic. Causeway Books. New York, NY. 1974
History and Development
Unlike many of the others religions and sects of India, the Sikh’s beginnings are fairly modern and well known. The religion dates itself from the birth of its founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji in 1469 A.D. in the Punjab territory of modern Pakistan. Raised as a ksatriya (warrior/ruler caste) Hindu, Nanak had a mystical experience with God that taught him “There is no Hindu, There is no Muslim”. This expression points what is a markedly obvious synthesis between Islam and Hindu thought that is seen in Sikh thinking and theology. Nanak had experience the invasion of the Moguls (Muslims) and the slaughter of local Hindus marred his young life. His fascination with Islam seems to be tilted strongly toward the Sufi movement, which is the mystical element of the Islamic faith. The type of Hinduism that comes through his thinking is a Vaisnava (Vishnu) sect with some similar teachings found in the Sant Mat group. Contrary to Advaita Vedanta (non-dual) teaching which emphasizes the unreality (Maya) of the world and the sole reality of Brahman (God), the Vishnu sect emphasized a separation between Vishnu and the creation, but at the same time (and in a contradictory manner) believed that the creation would blend in and be one with Vishnu at the end of all things. Nanak retained the idea of Maya, but softened it so that it is not so much a statement about the false nature of reality, but rather that it is about the false nature of the attractions and ideals found in the world. He also retained the classic themes of reincarnation (the cycle of birth, death and rebirth) and karma (actions in previous lives affect the present). There is also an emphasis on bhakti (devotion) and mystical transformation through meditation,
which can come from tantric yoga and other forms. From Islam Nanak retained monotheism and Islam’s abhorrence of idols. There had already been versions of monotheistic Hinduism so this was not quite a stretch for at least some Hindus. Like Islam Nanak attacked the Christian idea of the incarnation of the Christ, as well as the Avatar notion common in Hindu thought.
Some of the stories of Nanak’s birth recount miraculous signs but none of this is recorded until much later after his death. He was known to dress as a Muslim one day, a Hindu bhakti the next, an ascetic the next day and so on. His movement gained much success from its denial and attack on the ancient oppressive caste system of Hindu India and from its elevation of the value of women. The Sikhs have three distinct symbols – The Nishan Sahib – that is a flag on each of the Temples.
The second sigh is the Ik Onkar – which is the first two words of the Granth Sahib and is translated “There is only one God”. The final and most important sign is the Khanda – which is a double-edged sword. The edges represent the separation of truth from falsehood. The Khanda is surrounded by the Chakar – which is a circle representing God’s eternal perfection. The Chakar is surrounded by two Kirpans – swords that represent Spiritual and Temporal authority. Nanak and his followers built the first temple at Katarpur. Upon his death, he was succeeded by nine Gurus (teachers); in which usually the Guru would pass down the mantle of authority to a son. The fifth Guru Arjan compiled the authorative text for the Sikhs, the Adi Granth/Granth Sahib, which was a pivotal moment for the growing religion. This time period also was known for Muslim attacks upon the Sikhs communities and the beginning of a new mindset. Under the next Guru Hargobind, the community
became more cohesive politically and especially militarily. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, made some changes that marked the movement profoundly. He founded the Khalsa (the pure) in 1699, which became known for its rigid system of interworking military, societal and religious concerns, which were now tied together in a single community. The Khalsa become the heart of the most devoted of the Sikhs and it becomes the center of Sikh existence. For many there is only the Khalsa and the non-believer. There seems is no middle ground. For others the Khalsa were seen as the ultimate in devotion and religiosity, but there was still room for development and growth among the not so fervent. The Khalsa revolution also became the centerpiece for the Sikh nation, which carves out a large section of territory in the Punjab and had many successful military encounters with Muslims and Hindus. The British occupation of India and subsequent Sikh wars brought this period to an end, with the Sikhs later becoming quite prominent in the British army itself. The rise of Hindu nationalism (the Arya Samaj and Brahma Samaj) in the 19th century brought a combative emphasis to the distinction between traditional Hindus and all other supposed “non-Indian” religions, with attacks on the Sikhs, Christian, Buddhists, and Muslims becoming a normative problem to the present day. The second major move that Guru Gobind Singh made was with the death of his sons at Muslim hands, no clear successor was available. He made the decision to announce that there was no longer a need for an actual living successor, and that from now on the Sikh community would be taught by the word – the Granth Sahib. Often called the “11th” Guru, the emphasis of devotional reading, singing and meditation upon the scriptures replaced the authority of a living Guru.
All authority among the Sikhs is found in the Granth Sahib, and the lesser-valued Dasam Granth. Most of these writings are hymns and other prose, with a few scattered stories. The hymns are considered instructive and serve as guides to doctrinal content for the Sikh community. The text includes even non-Sikh statements from Islamic and Hindu texts that Nanak thought illustrative of the central teaching that there is only one God for all people. There are several languages used in the Granth Sahib, which necessitates that educated men do the daily readings. There is no priesthood among the Sikh, primarily due to the egalitarian instinct of Guru Nanak, perhaps in reaction to the Brahmin priests of the despised caste system. A visible seat of authority is the five main temples or Gurdwaras. The Golden Temple at Amritsar is the seat of practice and devotion for the world community of Sikhs. Baptisms for the Khalsa, dedication and blessing for soldiers and decisions made by the Sants (temple teacher/missionary leaders) are discussed and approved or disapproved there. Each individual Sikh is encouraged to read and meditate daily, without the need for an interpretative authority. But this does not mean that there is some sort of post-modern flexibility – the community is self-defined within the boundaries of the ten Gurus and the Granth Sahib.
Guru Nanak stressed over and over the singularity of the divine. There is one God (waheguru), who is at once with attributes (Saguna) and without attributes (Nirguna). The Nam Simran (true name of God) is chanted silently. One might also meditate and chant silently any of the other names or attributes of God. God is formless, creator, ineffable, eternal and so on. All of these attributes are chanted silently because the divine is experienced in an interior manner through the believer. The mantra becomes a focus point, guided by the Guru’s insights for a communion between God and the believer. As the believer meditates they are literally growing “into” God. This is where the inconsistent fusion between Hindu and Islamic thought can be dramatically seen. God is creator, implying a distinction between God and the world, as in Islamic thought. But God is also absorbing the creation into itself at the end of all things, as in Hindu thought. Sikhs seem to be unconcerned by the contradiction. God is never fully known by the believer as God is transcendent, but through the created order God’s immanence can be known. Here the human heart can experience the divine through the meditation, and this meditation outweighs all else in spiritual discipline and life.
What is ultimate reality?
As seen in some of the other sections the Sikh mind seems to be divided on the nature of reality and this is a direct reflection of the oil/water synthesis between Hinduism and Islam. There is one God and as creator God as made a real world. But ultimately the concerns and thought patterns of the world are Maya or illusory. And all the creation will be absorbed back into the One God. So while it is monotheistic,
in some senses, it also seems to have Vedantic thinking driving it. So it strikes one that Nanak rejected the strict Vedantic understanding of Hindu thinker Shankara of reality as nothing more than Brahman (God) being hidden by the Maya machine (the human mind), while he accepted the later tradition of Ramanuja, who gave a temporary status to the world but an ultimate absorption into the divine source.
Who are human beings?
Humans are earthly creatures who are imbued with a spark of the divine source. Sikhs borrow from the Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita and use the illustration of the sparks (atman), which lays down its old and weary clothes (body) and picks up a new set of clothes (rebirth of reincarnation). Like Islam and Hinduism, Sikhs deny that human beings are fallen or inherently sinful creatures. The ultimate end for the human being is absorption (Samadhi) into God.
What is the problem with the world/people?
While on one hand Sikhs deny that their religion is the only true religion, at the same time they criticize the Hindu and Islamic rituals and practices that the Sikhs disagree with. This points to Guru Nanak’s concern that too much emphasis in religion is placed on exterior behavior and ritual, with the attendant loss of emphasis on interior meditation and contemplation. Sikhs are also concerned with the “Five Thieves”, which include lust, anger, greed, worldly attachment and pride, These are not properly understood by the weak and thus people are drawn by ignorance into them. This is similar to a form of Hindu avidya or ignorance. The
non-practitioner is driven by ego and as well fails to see the ultimate will of God. Similar to Inshallah of Islamic thought – God is ultimate and God’s will is done.
What is the solution to the problem with the world/people?
Simply put salvation is found in final absorption into the divine. Sikhs deny that there is either a Heaven or Hell. Instead the doctrine of reincarnation points to an eternal progression of sorts into the final absorption. This is mediated through sincere practice and obedience to the Guru’s, but as mentioned before this is most clearly brought about by proper communion with the divine through chanting and meditation of God and its names and attributes. Reflection on the divine within is superior to all exterior practice. Having said that however, there is a tremendous amount of exterior practice that is expected of the individual believer. The man or woman must be baptized into the Khalsa at the Amritsar Temple. Upon baptism the man is renamed Singh (Lion) and the woman is renamed Kaur (Princess). These names remain for life. They are indicative of the rejection of the caste, which often identified its distinct members through the last name. The Khalsa member is then to keep the five “K”s. These are:
Kesa – growing ones hair long. It must never, ever, be cut. Some of the teachings seem to treat this as the unforgivable sin. Men will wear the recognizable turban to keep their hair up.
Kangah – A comb that is used to keep the hair in place.
Kacha – short pants which serve as undergarments. Kara – a metal bracelet.
Kirpan – a ceremonial dagger. This is seen as a ceremonial today especially in the Western world, but in its time and depending on the place the dagger was for self- defense.
Other practices are critical as well. The Sikh is expected to daily listen to, read, and meditate on the Granth Sahib. The Sikh can learn many other languages, but must learn Punjabi. The believer is not allowed to eat meat that has been slaughtered according to Muslim ritual (Halal). The Sikh must be first on the battle lines in a war and brave in all situations and never take alcohol or tobacco. So while the constant scriptural emphasis is on the inward devotion and meditative life, the flip side is that the Sikh is judged harshly upon their outward practices as well. This has become very critical as many Sikhs have migrated to the Western world and have accommodated themselves to Western practices. Some major disputes within the communities have arisen over such trivial things as having chairs and tables in the Gurdwaras for the common meals and young people cutting their hair, etc.
It is key to remember that when witnessing to Sikhs, that ones life is constantly on display. Of course this is true of witnessing to all other people as well. One must also remember that the love of God for the Sikhs is astounding. Our love for them must at least approximate that. In many of their recent writings and in some meetings that I have attended, the 1984 assault by the Indian (Hindu army in the Sikh’s minds) army on the Golden Temple in Amritsar is a defining moment for them. The assassination of Indian president Indira Gandhi and the riots, which
killed thousands of Sikhs following that, have left the Sikhs in a mindset that there is injustice and there must be a solution. But the Sikhs, even though they stress meditation and devotion for salvation, are really driven by their works. Their ability to follow the Khalsa commitment and their good works towards others are the measuring stick in this life and the basis for their next incarnation. Therefore, like in both Hindu and Islamic thought, the concept of divine grace as seen in the Cross of Christ is both repellant and attractive. The Sikhs wants “grace” from God to deny the five thieves, but since the Sikh individually is but a piece of God then grace becomes a meaningless concept. If all is absorbed ultimately and there is no heaven and hell, then it follows directly that all our actions are ultimately meaningless. We suffer no ultimate punishment nor do we gain any ultimate rewards. All our behaviors still lead us to the same place – absorption into God.
But the Sikh, who lives here and now, knows that what the Hindus’ did to the Golden Temple was evil. They bemoan the worldliness of the young people in the west and have a long history as a group of selfless behavior and bravery in many situations. This dichotomy of thought and behavior is a good place to introducing the concept of biblical grace and mercy. These of course cannot be earned. They are given by a truly loving God. This same all knowing God also takes our choices, both good and evil, and sees them as meaningful. That is why God is all holy and righteous. He knows what the Hindus did at Amritsar was evil and the assassination of the president of India was evil as well. For murder to be wrong – and every Sikh knows this is so – then murder must be a meaningful event. They know this in terms of karma for the next life, but somehow it loses it meaning when it comes to eternity.
But God is eternal and the Sikh knows this as well. That means that God is not going to denounce evil now and dismiss it later on. Many Sikhs have been moved by the idea, so critical to the Christian faith that Jesus Christ died for their sins. When the sins are identified as actions or karma, then the Sikh begins to understand that they do not have to pay the price and fear the next life – they can be forgiven. The Sikh religion also talks about the power of God, but doesn’t really express it in any meaningful way. Here the resurrection of Jesus Christ can be shown to them as a powerful indicator of God’s purpose and plan and especially His ability to bring change, hope, justice, and value to both the world and the individual.
Faithful Sikhs strive to devote themselves in mediation and chanting to grown into God. Just as any Sikh knows that worship of a false god is forbidden, they know that worship of the true God is commanded. It then follows that we cannot be seen as a part of God, even in the smallest sense, as God is eternally holy and we are not. So if this is the case then the Sikh must be shown that their worship of God in an important way is a worship of themselves. But the Sikh knows that his ego and pride are the epitome of the evils/thieves. This can open the door to fruitful discussion.
There are some who think that a comparison of waheguru and Jesus can be fruitful. I would maintain that there can be some comparison (monotheism, God as creator, etc) but there must also be contrast. God is eternally distinct from His creation and the problem is not ignorance but rather rebellion. The Sikhs in some way know this as well. They know that their own behavior separates them from God. This opens
the door to a discussion of sin and sin nature. Many questions can come from this. How can the Sikh be evil if the Sikh is a divine spark? How can God be holy if evil and good both come from God? If ignorance is the problem, as asserted by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others – then why do those who assert the position still practice what they know to be based in ignorance? It is here that the will of sinful human beings can be asserted as the only answer to the question. And if the will is sinful or fallen, then God alone can change it – the Sikh’s teaching is double-minded on this point and the Christian can bring them to clarity.
In many ways the Sikhs are good models for generosity and tolerance. Non-Sikhs are welcome and fed at their temples around the world. This is something they value. The Christian witness can attend these types of events and show the love of God by bringing them to Christian services as well. Many Sikhs have been moved by the presentation of the Gospel they hear at a Christian service and have come to Christ. Like the man mentioned in the Gospels – the Sikh can be close to the heart of God on some issues. But these things can also bring confusion because of what they have been taught. Pray for your Sikh friends and neighbors and coworkers that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts and minds to the Gospel. Interestingly enough, many Sikhs (and Muslims) are describing how God came to them in a dream and told them to seek out a Christian pastor. So prayer for God to move in these people’s lives is invaluable as well.
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