July 21, 2004
“Christian World View”
“Eastern Pantheistic Monism”
The Reverend J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Romans, chapter one. This is a passage that we've looked at a couple of times in connection with our summer series because it illustrates the self-destruction that always occurs when human beings attempt to find meaning in life apart from the God who made us, and who made us in His own image. And when we stop worshipping the Creator and we start worshipping the creature, it doesn't lead to joy and self-fulfillment, and more meaning, and more happiness, and more hope and more delight in this life: it leads to less, and eventually to the complete loss of those things. The Apostle Paul knew that two thousand years ago, and he had learned it from Moses, he had learned it from the Lord Jesus Christ, and he tells us again here in Romans chapter one, beginning in verse 20:
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
In other words, Paul is saying that God and something of His attributes is known to every human being through His creation, and that that message does get through to them.
Nevertheless, he goes on to say in verse 21:
“For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”
So again, Paul reminds us that all right human behavior is rooted in the knowledge of the transcendent, personal Creator God, who has revealed Himself in creation in such a way that His reality and His person and His characteristics get through to every human being. And yet, when the human being decides not to worship that transcendent, personal, Creator God, disintegration takes place: moral disintegration, relational disintegration, personal disintegration takes place. And so there is not only the punishment that God metes out against those who rebel against Him, but there is the self-destruction which is contributed by the individual to his or her own existence by choosing this wrong way.
Europe at the end of the Medieval Age
Well, we've been studying some of the wrong ways that people have chosen. Let me take you back to the fifteenth century. In the fifteenth century, we had experienced in the Western world something like ten centuries of theism, Christian theism.
Christian Theism asserted a transcendent, personal, Creator God, who made this world; who ordered this world according to His laws and principles; who made all humanity in His own image. Human behavior was to be a reflection of His transcendent personal, righteous character. And yet that Christian Theism, for perhaps a variety of reasons, lost grip on culture as we entered into the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and people began to search for alternatives. Perhaps it was because of the conflict between the doctrinal views of Christian theistic groups in Europe that some sought to have a kind of theism without doctrine: a theism which would be moral, but which wouldn't have doctrinal disagreements.
The Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and Rationalism
And so into that world came Deism, a form of theological Rationalism. Deism was the assertion of a Creator God who was transcendent, but perhaps impersonal; who brought the world into being, but let it go, and this view gripped the thoughts of many during the Age of the Enlightenment. It became a popular worldview amongst the most intelligent classes of the English-speaking world, the French-speaking world, and the German-speaking world.
But, following on Deism, there were many intelligent folks who realized that Deism had a tremendous, gaping hole in its philosophy. Deism had God as a first cause, bringing the world into being, and then the world operating according to these inexorable laws and processes that had first been set into place by the first cause, the God, the Creator God of Deism that had brought this world into being. But why posit a Creator God at all? Can't the world itself through its own mechanisms and laws and principles supply all the rationale that we have for our reasonable existence?
And so, Naturalism came along and said to Deism, ‘We like your view of the cause and effect processes of this world. We just don't see the need for a Creator to bring it into being.’ And so, Naturalism disposes of the Creator.
And then, Nihilism comes along and says to the Naturalists, ‘We like what you did in getting rid of God, but you need to go one step further. You need to go one step further and recognize that all of this order, and all of this sequence, and all of this cause and effect, and all of this massive mechanism of the world that you study, which you say suffuses meaning into life, and from which we can draw meaning from life–actually it doesn't give you meaning. This world is impersonal, it doesn't know that we exist, it can't give you meaning. This world makes no sense. Nothingness is what you deduce from the world around you. And so, Nihilism takes Naturalism to its absolute end extreme, and says no meaning can be deducted from this world and its sequences and its processes.
Then Existentialism comes along, primarily in the twentieth century. And it attempts to find meaning in the face of Nihilism and its assertion of meaninglessness. But you know what? Existentialism fails. And the failure of Existentialism dawns upon people in Europe and America in the 1960's. Where do they go? They come to a dead end with Rationalism.
From Deism, to Naturalism, to Nihilism, to Existentialism, and none have supplied an answer to this life. And there seems to be no getting around it.
If you say, well, “we’ll go back to Theism,” the Naturalist in us all rejects that. The Naturalist doesn't want to embrace the idea of an infinite, personal, transcendent Creator God. That idea is a serious barrier to the naturalistic mind, and even though Naturalism doesn't supply an answer to the deepest questions of mind, this naturalistic strand of thinking which is woven into the warp and woof of our culture doesn't want to let that go. But they can't think their way out of the problem of meaninglessness. So where do you go?
The Eastern Solution for Eternal Meaning
Well, in the 1960's the intelligentsia of our society began to look East. They ran into a philosophical dead-end in Western rationalistic thought. They couldn't supply an answer to the deep yearning questions of life based upon Western rationalism. So what did they do? They looked to the East. They looked to Eastern religion and philosophy, and they said, “perhaps we will find meaning there.” They recognized that Naturalism leads to Nihilism, and so they said “First of all, what we need to recognize is that reason itself cannot be trusted.” Secondly, they said, “Let's not only call a moratorium over quarrelling over ideas; let's call for a moratorium on distinguishing things intellectually at all.” And thirdly, they said “Since our activism has lead us to this meaningless situation, let's abandon our activism. Let's let it go, and let it happen. Can there be anything worse than we already have it now?” And so, they turned to the East, which supplied a rationale for these various moves.
So, on a sociological level we can trace the interest into Eastern religion and philosophy to the 1960's and to the rejection of middle-class values by the young generation that was coming through the schools and the colleges. If you want to read an interesting take on this, read Robert Bork's book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, where he details the rejections that occurred in the 1960's in the schools and colleges and universities.
These folks who rejected Western middle-class values said three things:
First, they said that Western technology made possible modern warfare. And the Vietnam war they saw as the result of this Western reason and philosophy that had produced this kind of technology for warfare. And so they said, “Let's abandon reason. Reason is responsible for all this. Western rationalism is the root cause of all the things that are wrong in this Western militaristic culture, as seen in the Vietnam conflict. And therefore, let's abandon reason.”
Secondly, they said, “Western economics have led to gross inequity and economic oppression of masses of people in the Third World. And since Western economics are based on Western philosophy and reason, let's reject Western philosophy and reason, because it is that from which this system of gross, unfair, Western economics has developed.”
Thirdly, they said, “Western religion has largely supported those who are in control of the culture, and control of the technology, and control of the economic system. So let's get rid of Western religion, and let's find something else.” And so they swing to Eastern thought.
But this swing to Eastern thought, you see, is not an answer: it's simply a rejection, a retreat from Western thought. They see the Western system as ending in a maze of contradictions leading to intellectual suicide and Nihilism, and so they choose the way of anti-rationalism. If rationalism is the problem, let's just reject reason. Let's take syncretism, let's take an uncomplicated life of anti-rationalism. And for that kind of a swing, Eastern religion and philosophy is very attractive.
Now, maybe you have come across this kind of Eastern religion and philosophy in your own reading, and haven't realized it. How many of you had to read, in high school or college, J.D. Salinger's book, Catcher in the Rye? Ladies and gentlemen, you were introduced to Eastern thought in Catcher in the Rye. You may not have realized it, but Salinger was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism, and he was seeing it as a way out for the dilemmas that his hero faced in Catcher in the Rye. You remember the scene at the very end of the book, with the merry-go-round? That's the symbol, that Eastern symbol, of the endless cycle of “the one.” Well, we won't go there, but the interesting thing is that in many works which have become sort of classics of Western literature in the last thirty years, this retreat to Eastern thought is present. You can find it in surprising places: from the bench of the Chicago Bulls or the L.A. Lakers in the teaching of Coach Phil Jackson, who encouraged all his players to practice the techniques of Zen Buddhism in order to maximize their athletic potential, to the drugstore magazine rack, you can find the influences of Eastern thought in our culture.
Eastern Pantheistic Monism Now, we're going to look at just one type of Eastern thought. Eastern thought is just as broad and diverse as Western thought. Ravi Zacharias, by the way, is wonderful on this. Oftentimes people identify Eastern thought with just one strand of Eastern thought, but the fact of the matter is, Eastern thought, especially in its earlier period, has many, many points of contact with Western philosophy. But the kind of Eastern thought that we're going to focus on is “Eastern Pantheistic Monism.” Now that's a big mouthful of a term, but it describes a particular kind of Eastern worldview and philosophy that has been the most popular philosophy adapted by Western thinkers that are attempting to escape from the Nihilism of Western rationalism.
Eastern pantheistic monism is distinguished by its monism, and monism is the key phrase there. Pantheism, of course, is the idea that God is in everything: but monism is the idea that the one reality of this universe is impersonal. So when you talk about “God” in Eastern religion, it's important for you to recognize that you are not talking about the personal deity, about whom we speak as Christian theists; you are talking about an impersonal, single reality. It's vital for us to understand that. Oftentimes you will hear Western atheists say something like this: “Oh, Buddhism is a much more rational religion than Christianity.” Now, that is one of the stupidest statements that could possibly be made, because Buddhism is expressly anti-rational, and so to call it ‘more rational’ than Christianity is an utterly ignorant statement.
But why would an intelligent, university-trained atheist say that? Well, let me tell you why: because Buddhism is atheistic. Buddhism doesn't believe in a personal, Creator God. And therefore, the Western rationalist-atheist judges it to be more rational than Christianity. Why? Because he or she doesn't believe in a transcendent, personal, Creator God; and therefore, any religion that also shares that rejection, that person deems intelligent. So when we talk about “God” in Eastern religion, and that word can be used as we describe Eastern religion and philosophy, just remember that we're not talking about a transcendent, personal, Creator God.
Now this gets confusing, because some Eastern religion does believe in a transcendent, personal Creator God: such as the Hare Krishna cult, introduced to us through George Harrison of “The Beatles.” The Krishna-consciousness folks do believe in a personal reality, but most Eastern pantheistic monism is based upon the idea that reality is ultimately impersonal. There's no personal God.
A Summary of Eastern Thought
1. The first and most important point of Eastern pantheistic monism is Atman is Brahman. In other words, the soul of each and every human being is the soul of the cosmos. Atman, which is the essence of the individual human soul, is Brahman; that is, the essence of the soul of the whole cosmos. Each person, according to Eastern pantheistic monism, is God. You are God. And enlightenment comes when you realize that you are God.
Now, contrast that to what the Apostle Paul says in Romans.1:20-25. They knew that God ought to be worshiped and honored, but they worshiped the creature rather than the Creator, and so God gave them over to…foolishness.
Now here is the foundation of this religion: You are God. Remember, we have to define “god” in pantheistic, monistic terms: God is one; he is infinite, but he is impersonal. He can't relate to you, because he is not a “he”; it's an “it.” God is all that exists. Nothing exists that is not God. If anything that is not God appears to exist, it's an illusion, and doesn't truly exist. But all is ultimately one, and every distinction is an illusion. It is not our separateness that gives us reality, it's our oneness, the fact that we are Brahman, and Brahman is one. Ultimate reality, according to Eastern thought, is beyond distinction. We can't express it in language. We can only realize it by becoming it.
In the West, to think is to distinguish. But in the East, distinctions themselves are illusions, because all is one. To know in Eastern philosophy is to pass beyond distinction. The Upanishads1 celebrate this particular kind of thinking in various parables. Here's one of them:
“A father says to his son, ‘Bring me a fruit from this banyan tree.’ ‘Here it is, Father.’ ‘Break it.’ ‘It is broken, sir.’ ‘What do you see in it?’ ‘Very small seeds, sir.’ ‘Break one of them, my son.’ ‘It is broken, sir.’ ‘What do you see in it?’ ‘Nothing at all, sir.’ Then his father spoke to him: ‘My son, from the very essence in the seed which you cannot see, comes in truth this vast banyan tree. Believe me, my son, an invisible and subtle essence is the spirit of the whole universe. That is reality. That is Atman. You are that. You see, the father, the guru, teaches his son, a novice, that even he, a novice, is ultimate reality. He is Brahman. Atman is Brahman So there's the first principle of Eastern thought: you are God.
Now, Billy will explore with us next week how pop, Western, therapeutic, psychologized culture has taken over those ideas. For instance, in the form of Shirley McLaine, who found out that she was God while floating mysteriously above the water in Peru. So, this kind of idea has been taken over into New Age thought, but it's being borrowed from Eastern philosophy. So there's the first point: you are God.
2. Some things are more one than others. Right. I meant what I said: Some things are more one than others. Some things, some appearances, some illusions in this life, are closer than others at being one with “the one.” You see, to realize oneness is not consciousness. No, to realize oneness, it might seem to imply consciousness, but as we shall see, when you are one with “the one” consciousness disappears, and one merely is infinite personal being. Consciousness, like techniques of meditation, is just one more thing to be discarded when its usefulness is past. So, when we say some things are more one–that is, more real–than others, we are saying that there are some things that have realized that unity with “the one” more than others, according to Eastern philosophy.
3. Many, if not all, roads lead to “the one.” All roads lead to “the one.” You see, in Eastern thought, ideas are not important. Realizing oneness with “the one” is not a matter of belief, but of technique. And even those techniques can vary. That's why some gurus will stress chanting a mantra, or recommend meditation on a mandala 2– a fascinating, beautiful circular image which sums up the totality of reality; or repeating a Koan, a Zen riddle that doesn't make sense, like: “My son, what is the sound of one hand clapping?” And if you meditate upon this long enough to realize that there is no answer to that question because ultimate reality transcends answers and distinctions, and questions, and consciousness and intelligence, then you achieve satori, oneness with “the one.”
You see, in Eastern meditation, meditation is always content-less. You want to empty the mind, because thinking is an illusion. Distinctions are illusions. That, by the way, my friends, through, for instance, yoga practices in the Western world, is one of the ways that Eastern thought forms are running. Christian meditation is never content-less. Who do we meditate upon? We meditate upon God and His word! It's always content-ful. But Eastern meditation always desires to empty the mind.
And so we see this idea in popular culture. Think of the movie Star Wars. How many of you saw Star Wars? When Luke Skywalker had to go against the Death Star in his little rebel fighter? And you remember, he pulls up his computer screen, and he locks on the target, and Obi Wan Kenobi says to him, “Luke, trust your feelings….let go…let the force work within you.” Now what was the idea? Empty your mind, stop thinking about it. The Force will control you. Well, you understand that George Lucas borrowed the worldview for the Star Wars then-trilogy from Eastern Pantheistic Monism. The Force is this impersonal reality which pervades all. And if Luke will do what? Empty his mind, let go, and let The Force take over, what happens? Bingo! Bull's eye! That thing goes in and the Death Star blows up! Eastern Pantheistic Monism.
4. To realize one's oneness with the cosmos, with “the one,” with Brahman, is to pass beyond personality, because human beings in our truest, fullest being, are impersonal. Now, this notion, of course, of pantheistic monism, is at diametrical odds with Christian theism. We've just sung “and when from death we're free, we will sing on.” I will sing on! And Eastern religion says, “Ah, my son, you are still in the veil of illusion, because death is an illusion and you are an illusion. All is one, and one is all.” What a very different view of death and of what comes after. The Atheist Naturalist says, “When you die, that collection of atoms that is you is gone.” And Eastern Pantheistic Monism says, “Exactly right, but there's one more thing. You need to realize that you are no more or no less Brahman when you die than you are when you’re alive.” Death changes nothing, because all is one, and one is all, and Atman is Brahman, and the universe is perfect at all times and in all situations and circumstances, because reality is one undifferentiated, non-dual unity.’
5. Eastern Pantheistic Monism says that to realize one's oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond knowledge, and so the principle of non-contradiction and distinctions doesn't’ apply where ultimate reality is concerned. That's why language can't convey truth about reality. Juan Mascarу3 explains what this means for the Eastern Pantheistic Monistic view of God. He says, “When the sage of the Upanishads is pressed for a definition of God, he remains silent; meaning, God is silence. When asked again to express God in words, he says “Neti! Neti!”–“not this, not this!” But when pressed for a positive explanation, he utters the sublime words: I give up! “You are that.”
6. Eastern pantheistic monism says that to realize one's oneness beyond the cosmos is not only to pass beyond knowledge, it is to pass beyond good and evil. Now, one of the things that we Christians have always said is that what you think about God will determine how you act. And here again we see that principle coming to bear, because you say that “the one” is beyond good and evil, and beyond knowledge; then realizing oneness with “the one” is passing beyond good and evil. And it's the softest spot in Eastern Pantheism, because people know inherently that it is impossible, ultimately, to deny distinction between right and wrong. You hold a pistol to someone's head, and say, “Why shouldn't I squeeze the trigger?” And people want there to be a better answer than, “Because I don't want you to.” It's very, very difficult to deny morality, because we can't live that way. There's a reason why people in the midst of a funeral– atheists in the midst of a funeral–don't get up and mock the person who is just dead, or the loved ones who are still alive. Why? Because they can't get away from right and wrong! But the Eastern pantheistic philosophy doesn't have a way of supporting right and wrong consistently.
Now, they do have an idea called karma4. And the idea of karma, you see, is the idea that one's present fate, one's pleasure or pain, or being a king or a slave or a gnat, is the result of your past actions. And so, in Eastern thought, karma is sort of like our idea of, “you reap what you sow.” If you’re bad in this life, you’ll come back a horsefly. And so, your ultimate goal through the transmigration of souls is to divest yourself of that bad karma so that you become “one with the one” and enter into nothingness.
But the problem is, in Eastern thought all actions are just part of the world of illusion; and so true and false, good and evil–these two–are categories that fade away when you become one with the one. And so Eastern thought cannot provide the basis for a stable, moral universe. And if your system of thought can't do that, it cannot survive reality.
7. Eastern Pantheistic Monism says that the death of the individual changes nothing, absolutely nothing, essential in your nature. Because the personal and the individual are both illusions, reality is impersonal; so, all that which is personal in this world–it's an illusion. Reality is one, so the idea of an individual distinct from the rest of reality, that's illusion, too.
8. For Eastern Pantheistic Monism, realizing oneness with the one is passing beyond time and history, because time is unreal and history is cyclical. Siddhartha5 expresses this with the image of the river:
“All the voices and images and faces intertwined; all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. The great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Ohm.”
Why do the Transcendentalists meditate with the word ohm6? It's the perfect word, expressing “the one,” emptying us of the veil of illusion, of knowledge, of distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil, and eventually enabling us to merge with the one. This river in this long passage from Siddhartha becomes the image for the cosmos. And so the Eastern scriptures are filled with parables and fables and stories, and myths and song, and haikus and hymns and epics–but no history, because reality takes place in an unrepeatable space/time context, not in history.
And so, Eastern religion became a popular retreat from Western Rationalism. But Americans didn't like the depressing nature of it. We had to find some way to make Eastern religion positive! And you’ll find out about the New Age, the positive version, the California version, of Eastern religion, beginning next week.
Lord God, we see here the foolishness of man, but, boy, do we see our culture writ large in this kind of crazy thinking. Help us to appreciate the hope, and the joy and the fullness that comes alone in Christ and in the gospel; and to be able to speak intelligently and compassionately to people who are in the grip of this kind of crazy, false thinking. Show them the Savior, show them their sin. Draw them to the Savior, and give them fullness of joy. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
1. Upanishads. http://www.san.beck.org/Upan1-Kena.html
2. Mandala. http://www.graphics.cornell.edu/online/mandala/
3. Juan Mascaro. http://www.bookfinder.us/review4/0140441212.html
4. Karma. http://www.sgi-usa.org/buddhism/faqs/karma.html
5. Siddhartha. http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~dee/BUDDHISM/SIDD.HTM
6. Om. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/tibet-txt.htm
Some material taken from “The Universe Next Door” by James W. Sire. (c)2004 by James W. Sire. Posted with permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. ivpress.com