Coping with the East

This whole article is a series of questions. Could be you have similar questions, or even better, you can answer mine. I say that genuinely. Furthermore it is written because of a belief I have, so I’ll get that out up front. I think this particular challenge will be one of the greatest ones facing Christians in the twenty first century. Let’s start with a big kicker. Did you know which world religion is the most successful at crossing cultural and political borders? In other words which major belief has moved around the world the best? The correct answer is not Christianity. It is Buddhism. That is the analysis of Huntington in his well known book on the Clash of Civilizations.

I don’t know whether that is a surprise to most Christians. I must admit it was to me. I mean, Buddhists aren’t evangelical. They don’t even push their beliefs.
Here is another one. Some people surmise that the victorious spread of Christianity through the missionary endeavours of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was not so successful after all. It was successful in areas that basically had animist religions, such as Black Africa and the Pacific Islands. It was also successful in immigrant nations such as Singapore. But in nations such as India, Pakistan and Thailand, with long established major world religions, the Christian missionary effort in the long run proved a revitalising force to those traditional belief structures. Today Hinduism is as aggressively on the grow in India as Buddhism is in California.

And just as a final insult to us, our western nations are increasingly filled with Islamic peoples. Even in faraway nations like New Zealand, it is not uncommon to drive along a street at certain times and think you are in Malaysia what with all the turbaned heads and long robed women walking to their mosque. Good Christian folk can of course always point to that activity as success of the devil infiltrating various layers of Gods own countries. Which is not a bad short term strategy to hold a disintegrating flock together by the way.

We must jump to the intellectual element of Christendom at this point. All my life I have heard complex arguments about why Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam is wrong. Believe it or not, some of these debates are based on mathematical formulas and the use of logic. Further believe it or not, the mathematical logic arguments are very, very good. Well, at least when you hear them presented to you. I just have trouble remembering the theories in detail, but gee, they sound great.

I understand that the generic term for efforts to buttress the Christian faith is the word apologetics. Apologetics attempts to provide Christians who attend Bible Colleges with an intellectual underpinning of the logic of their beliefs. Armed with this knowledge they can then go out and confront other religions and show them where they are going wrong. Apologetics is very worthwhile if you are serious about defending your faith in a general sort of debate. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is valuable.

But where it comes undone is in confronting other religions. They use different paradigms of thought. Living in Asia gave me many opportunities to observe these confrontations. Let me give you a few. I got in a taxi one day with an aggressive young Pastor from Australia who was really out to show me that we can witness for Christ in any and all situations by giving the taxi driver something to think about. So he started a friendly conversation on the fact that the cab had a plastic Buddha glued to the dashboard. In reality this is akin to a western taxi driver having the newspaper open at the horse racing page in the front seat. It is an indication that the guy has a feeling somewhere about his lucky day coming, and it is good to have an omen or two about.

Anyway this young Pastor, realising he had only ten minutes to change this chaps life, asked questions about the Buddha and why did he have it there? The poor cab driver reverted to Asian laughter and in comprehendible answers because he had no idea what the westerner was talking about, and still less that any religious belief is something you can debate about. His Buddhism is based around a long family history that he would never attempt to persuade anyone else about. It is just not in his paradigm to have religion on that level. Debates belong to the sphere of share prices and which soccer team is best.

I saw another one on video. This Anglican bishop, a very nice British one, came up to a Shinto priest at a conference on world religions and after the pleasantries had been exchanged, he asked the Shinto if he could provide some explanation about his theology. The Shinto paused, understanding a little of what the word theology meant, but unsure how to answer. He was unsure because he was aware Christians have a huge investment in theology, in church schools and seminaries and books and careers etc. In the end he confessed he was just here. He was just standing there – existing.

And so the discussion didn’t have a long way to go because the paradigms were different. One person thought they could elucidate their faith in words, in concepts, in logic, while the other thought in terms of his beingness and consciousness of his existence.

It is so easy to find a fault with another religion. E.g. Islamic atrocities. These guys would catch some poor Russian soldier during the 1980s Afghanistan war, and cut his genitals off, or bind a bowl to his stomach with a rat in it that subsequently chewed its way out through him. Or we hear about the Hindu Caste System where the untouchable class are valued less than cows, and widows are encouraged to throw themselves into their husbands funeral pyres etc.

But when we get accused of Christianity’s bad press, such as the inquisition, or the burning at the stake of many heretics, that is a different story. “Oh no, those horrors were not committed by real followers.” However figure this: if we recognise Christianity has had bad patches, is it not also possible that those other religions also experienced extremists and have done many wrongs? Is it not possible that there are some parts of Hindu history that the genuine Hindu feels were grossly wrong?

Take this one further. Lets look at mere normalcy. Perhaps you sometimes get embarrassed simply by entering a normal church and observing all the chintzy furniture, the robes the parson wears, or the electric ensemble of instruments up front, or the guys handing out church notices etc etc. So much of it looks, well it looks…. pathetic, doesn’t it. It is trying to convey something about the Creator of the Universe but it looks like a B Grade movie.

Now imagine you a Hindu. It could well be that when you enter your temple, you have similar thoughts. You might think, well Kali is a really big God but is she really black, after all that is just a statue, and those paintings up there, who cooked that up, and I get tired of seeing the old priest wipe his nose all the time… etc etc. You might think the temple was a very poor representation of the numerous gods that have guided Hindus through antiquity.

Now us Christians again, we can accept and explain away one (our own religions icons and perspectives), but we sure get stuck into others about theirs. I am just asking whether it is possible those other religions might also be mere portrayals of the real thing, that what we see is only an icon representing something bigger to their own community.

Let me get pedantic. We criticize other religions because they appear to worship idols made of wood or stone. Yet western cathedrals are crammed full of effigies of Jesus or his earthly mother or the saints. However we explain all that away. We say they are not real idols, just symbolic structures. Well, how come we don’t allow that maybe the other religions also have their figures as symbols. Just like us.

Did you realise for example, that the Hindus deliberately burn the effigies of their gods at the close of their ceremonies? This could be a symbolic statement in it’s own right saying, “we do not worship these images wrought by human effort, they are merely symbols of the divine.”

It is interesting to compare the offer of Christianity with Buddhism today. We have miracles available from Christendom these days, either the Toronto or Pensacola blessings, or teeth fillings turning to gold mysteriously. I mean some of these actions just look weird don’t they? I saw the coverage on TV about the Pensacola blessing, and the people falling and shaking. It looked well, cultlike.

However from the Buddhist side we have semi casual statements saying it is worthwhile looking into our inner selves to understand why we act as we do. We hear mellow people seemingly without a barrow to push suggesting a bit more calm and acceptance might be good for us. To come to a consciousness of our behaviour.

Given these current religious options in today’s global world I can readily understand why more thinking westerners turn to eastern religions. From an objective opinion, ask yourself would you be more attracted to a group of people singing songs endlessly with questionable physical healing as their main proof statement, or encounter groups teaching you how to cope with stress?

Still, come to think of the zaniness of current existence, I guess there is plenty of room for both.

Then you get some out of line Christian commentators suggesting the eastern religious question needs to be faced up to a bit more. Harvey Cox once wrote a book called Many Mansions. Stems from Jesus saying ‘In my father house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would not have told you.’ He was getting at the idea that Jesus may have been suggesting other religions have a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. There are also books on Christian Zen, Christian Buddhism and its links. There are also writings on Christian Anarchy by the way.

But Harvey Cox has been labelled a liberal by the evangelical sector, a label given by well meaning Pastors seeking to protect the thinking of their congregations.

Well, given all this, what are the options if you believe in the significance of Jesus Christ in time, space and humanity? Here are some. Tell me some more please.

  1. Ignore the eastern encroachment. It doesn’t exist. Keep your discussions centred around how Christian denominations are getting together more, how Anglicans mix with Pentecostals. You can then think you are pretty advanced in your acceptance stakes even though the rest of the world can’t believe you are still here.
  2. Stay conservative. Those eastern religions are wrong, they are deceptive, and they mislead people.
  3. Get more tolerant. Try to understand the other faiths, love the people, be really nice to them, never criticize, listen to their stories – but deep down retain the belief that they are nevertheless wrong. This is the Religiously Correct (RC) response.
  4. Integrate them all into your worldview. This is what the Bahai religion does. They accept anyone. Everyone is correct. Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed – they were all messengers, more or less equal. Tough choice this, because it means you have given away the central significance of Jesus.
  5. Think on the possibility that other religions are a shadow, a pointer as it were to Jesus. They are not wrong, in fact they are fulfilled in Christ. Twenty years ago there were similar thoughts in some Christian minds about Communism. Many came to the conclusion you could be a believer and also be a Communist. That Socialism was in fact merely a Christian heresy – a belief in equality gone a bit AWOL. And who started equality? Christendom of course. So, could a follower of Jesus also practice Zen?

Believe it or not, I don’t have a personal preference for any one of these choices. In fact there are very likely more options. I would genuinely love to hear them. Because I too believe in the central significance of Jesus Christ in time, space and humanity. But I don’t have a clear understanding of how that fits with other religions. I wish I did.

However I am prepared to make some observations.

  1. Globalisation will bring more people from different religions face to face with each other. If you believe in any Master-Plan-for-the-universe then this is a fact worth chewing on.
  2. There are interesting verses in the Bible to look at;
    • Luke 19, alluding to Jesus or the Father “reaping where he has not sown.”
    • Here is another version (NASB) of the verse Harvey Cox referred to; (John 14:2.) In my Father’s house are many dwelling places: if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. (The italics are mine. But it makes for interesting discussion)
  3. Christendom or Churchdom if you like, is currently dying in the West. It will decline a lot further before believers in general accept it is declining.

I strayed into an opinion there didn’t I? Well, here’s another. I don’t really think we have heard the last of the message of Jesus. I reckon we are just living in a period of Christendom’s decline. In our own self importance, we hate to think that we don’t live in an age of great spiritual growth. We get consumed with our own significance. But there have been many similar periods of decline in history before.

It was just difficult recognizing them at the time.