A woman from our parish who taught comparative religion just stared at me, when I told her that in twenty minutes I was going to cover Atheism, Agnosticism, Primitive Religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Little wonder. (I forgot to tell you that this series is based on talks I gave some years ago at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg.) However, I don’t want this series go on till after the Second Coming. (“Next Week: the Kingdom of Heaven“. There is also another possibility, of course… ) So I’m going to be absurdly brief now, so that later we can concentrate on the faiths we deal with most today: Judaism, Islam, and especially the many kinds of Christianity. So today read carefully and don’t skip anything, or you may miss an entire religion.
Atheism is not a formal religion, although it may be turning into one. Atheists recently are increasingly banding together for mutual support and encouragement, and as I mentioned last week they are even advertising on television. However, Atheism is a faith. Atheists believe there is no God, and negatives cannot be proved – nor can positives. Atheists believe that there is no Creator behind the universe; it just started itself. That no-one designed the universe; it just designed itself. That no-one keeps it going; it just runs itself. These things just are. Personally, I think that’s a pretty hard sell. If people say there is no God, don’t necessarily believe them. Instead ask: what kind of god do they deny? Their idea of God may be so false (an old man in the sky?) that we also disbelieve that. We Christians were once called atheists because we disbelieved in false pagan gods. Some atheists seem to believe that “modern science” has disproved the existence of God. This is not true. No unbiased scientist would ever suggest such a thing. Science deals only with what can be measured or quantified within the universe, which means science can’t speak one way or the other as to what or Who lies behind it all. Or perhaps atheists have just been turned off by sanctimonious, self-righteous or nasty Christians, of which there seem to be quite a number these days.
Listen very closely to atheists: Some are not disbelieving in God at all. They are actually saying they believe God is not good, perhaps because of something dreadful that has happened to them or those they love. This is a good argument. They look at the world, at people, at you and me and ask “Where is your good God who created this, who lets it go on? “The problem of evil.” I once heard a Protestant Indian bishop say that he had seen so much suffering and horror in India, that were it not for the Incarnation, Cruifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ he would be a non-believer. Jesus gave us only a non-explanation, saying that the good wheat and evil weeds must grow together till the end. But he did give us a way to deal with evil, pain and suffering, by following him through the Cross and into Glory. But that “works” only if you already believe in Christ, and that’s no help for an atheist.
Recently, some atheist books have been best sellers. Good! It should keep us Christians awake and on our toes–though sometimes it does not. Did I tell you that once on BBC I heard an intelligent atheist debate a liberal Anglican dean of somewhere or other, and I thought the atheist easily won the debate with his clarity against the dean’s mush. Furthermore, devout atheists often make devout converts.
The poor atheists. It’s got to be lonely out there without God and the Church. They believe that beyond all the hopes and dreams of mankind, our desire for justice, all our knowledge gained, all our love shared lies… Nothing. Death. Pray for them.
Agnosticism is a lack of faith, so perhaps it shouldn’t be included here. Agnostics say they don’t know if God exists. Some want proof. They’ll never get it, one way or another. Real life is never a matter of logical proof. I will send out this Blog entry not because I can prove you’re all still out there, but because you have been so far. For all I know you have now all been eaten by sea serpents, which is highly unlikely, thank God. But right now I can’t prove it one way or another.
Why are people agnostic? Maybe they were not raised in a believing home. Maybe they just have no natural inclination towards God. Maybe they’re busy or their mind is filled 24 hours a day by media of various sorts (as so many people are today) so they just haven’t got around to thinking about the meaning of life. Who can say? 150 years ago an Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice complained that the modern world seemed to be developing a kind of people “to whom the Gospel cannot be preached”. Indeed. Today in England only 54% of people say they believe in God.
It’s hard to respond to people who say “I don’t know, maybe, maybe not”. But finally agnosticism winds up like atheism: a dead end.
Do not ever say the silly thing sometimes said (not by Orthodox. I hope) that all religions are really alike. Tell that to someone whose heart was just ripped out by Aztec priests to be sacrificed to Popacatapetl. Primitive and pagan religions deal with forces, spirits, gods and goddesses, but not the one Creator God. Their practices may be benign like the ancient Greeks or demonic like Aztecs. I once tried delving seriously into ancient Mediterranean myths, and they were so intertwined, with gods and goddesses sharing names and personalities and duties, so impenetrable to me that I gave up. What primitive religions generally get right is that things are wrong between mankind and the higher powers, and therefore something needs to be done to get the gods’ attention and set things right. And maybe they had another function: C.S. Lewis in an essay in his book God in the Dock (originally published in the U.K under the title Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics) had a chapter entitled “Myth Became Fact”. In it he suggested that all the shadowy myths of dying and rising gods, which took place no-one knew when or where, even fertility rites, sacred meals, horrible human sacrifice, were foreshadowings of the One who was born into the world we know exactly where and when, who sacrificed himself, dying and rising from the dead for the life of the world and our salvation. Notice that they almost all faded away and died soon after the coming of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, as if he had fulfilled them, and they no longer had any reason to exist. Let me add that in Orthodoxy, I feel a connection to primitive religion that I never felt when I was a western Christian, whether evangelical Protestant, liberal Protestant and Anglo-Catholic. I cannot explain this. The closest I can come is to say that Western Christianity felt to me more “organized” “, “man-made”, while Orthodoxy feels more “natural” “built-in” to humanity. Do any of you have the same feeling? If you can explain it, please tell me.
Hinduism is in most ways an advanced primitive religion, not based in revelation as in Judaism, Christianity, and (as they claim) Islam – though most of its beliefs have been written down in their holy books, the Vedas, and the Ramayana which includes the Bhagavad Gita, and the Puranas. Hindus have many gods, some of them pretty scary. To the right is Shiva, the goddess of destruction. Hindus also believe in one world soul, the Brahman. This is not our God whom Jews, Christians and Muslims worship, who exists outside the universe, who is the Creator of the cosmos. Brahman is the soul of the universe, who is contained within the universe.
C.S. Lewis said if he could not be Christian he would be tempted to be a Hindu, because Hinduism encompasses almost every religious possibility. Various kinds of Hinduism may have high philosophy or deep mysticism or morality (some admirable, some not) and primitive ritual and sacrifice, but Hinduism does not integrate these elements. Tradional Christianity unites them in, for example, the Divine Liturgy where theology, philosophy, mysticism, high morality and ancient ritual are united, and thereby united in each of us. Christians can find much to admire in Hinduism and much to disagree with, for example the caste system. Many Hindus follow the direction of a guru whose function is similar to that of an Orthodox elder or spiritual father or mother. A recent book The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios tells of a young man who escaped from a Hindu group that practiced mind control, but this is not typical Hinduism.
What unites Hindus is belief in reincarnation: that after death the soul returns in either a higher or lower station, and can keep rising (or declining) lifetime after lifetime, till finally it escapes matter and disappears into the world soul like a drop of water into the sea. Christians reject reincarnation because 1) We believe matter is good, created by God, not something to be escaped from. 2) We believe in the resurrection of each person’s body, as Christ demonstrated and promised. 3) Reincarnation destroys that which Christianity values most: the person, the development of the personality. People who are reincarnated forget their past. But memory is precisely what creates and forms the human person. If we disappear into the world soul, the individual person is lost. Does reincarnation ever happen? Who can say? (Even those who believe in reincarnation can’t say, for they claim to lose their memories after they die. If it does, it is not God’s will. But in this world obviously many things happen that are not God’s will.
What about yoga? which is of Hindu origin. Some believe that Orthodox should not be involved in it. Here is my personal opinion; feel free to disagree, and if you do please respond. I think as long as yoga consists only of exercise for good health, it is spiritually harmless. However if it takes on any religious aspects, such as chanting “om”, a sacred chant in many far eastern religions (but not Orthodoxy), get away as quick is you can. That is idolatry. Likewise, if you find your “Alleluia” transmogrifying into “Hare Krishna”, as in the Beatles’ song “My Sweet Lord”, stop singing. I loved the song, loved the music, but don’t sing it. That’s idolatry.
The Buddha never spoke of God or gods. Buddhism has developed in many directions, and some Buddhists now have a kind of salvation religion. I have heard of Buddhist school children singing, “Buddha loves me, this I know.” But classical Buddhism knew no such thing. The Buddha only gave people a way of escaping suffering by renouncing all things, even life itself, so that in the end one moves beyond all desires and hopes and achieves Nirvana, which is beyond description, and into which (as in Hinduism) the individual person apparently disappears. There is a partial parallel to this in Christianity: Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake …will save it.” I have wondered if when Buddhists deny themselves and disappear into Nirvana, are they surprised to discover they have found themselves in Christ? That is sheer speculation. Please correct me if you think I am totally wrong in this. There are many Buddhist holy writings, but I think none of them play the same authoritative role as the Holy Scriptures do in Christianity. Buddhist devotional practices are very like Orthodox: incense, candles, emphasis on monasticism. A friend of mine who was of a contemplative bent (Father Gregory, memory eternal.+) used to say if he could not be Orthodox he would be Buddhist.
Next Week: Judaism – our Christian roots, the modern nation of Israel