Four Reasons Jesus was not just another Avatar.

Remember the movie Avatar?  Humans could use a computer to plug into these giant purple aliens and live through them.  This idea comes from the venerable and ancient religion of Hinduism.  It was claimed that God often manifested himself in physical form.  Sometimes this is as a man.  Sometimes it is an elephant or another animal.  These manifestations, called avatars, were not considered a permanent state for the deity.  They were temporary scenarios where God or a god was attempting to change the karmic imbalance.  God was trying to tilt the world back towards moral harmony.  In Christianity, Jesus Christ is God made man as well who came to save humanity from their lack of moral wholeness.  Can these two pictures be harmonized?  Many in our pluralistic age have sought to do this.  It is surely a tempting route to bring together all the world’s great religions.  Perhaps it could help us co-exist as the bumper sticker puts it. But is this harmonization really an intellectually or existentially satisfying explanation?  I’m voting no on this.  Here are four reasons why.

1. Jesus permanently became a man

In the Christian Scriptures, God did not simply appear as a man.  He was made man permanently. John 1:14 says that the Word, that is, the 2nd person of the Trinity, was made or became man.  Everyone is familiar with the Christmas story where Jesus is born of the virgin Mary.  He grows up like a regular person and lives as a man from cradle to grave, eating, drinking, becoming tired and so on.  Other than his miracles and profound teaching, he is an ordinary man.  Also, Christian theology recognized that he stayed a man after his death and resurrection.  He now is man forever, performing the role of a priest and intercessor for all humans.  I need not harp on the fact that Brahman, the one God of Hinduism does not continue to retain his human or animal forms.

2. God is radically different in both faiths

Jesus believed that God was personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, loving, righteous, and good.  He often referred to God as “Father” and taught his disciples to do the same (Matt. 6).  It gets thicker though.  Jesus also claimed to be God in some sense, equal with the Father and yet having taken the flesh of a man (Matt 11:25-27).  This teaches that God is not just personal, but that he has always had a loving relationship within himself, so to speak.  God is so personal, he is three-persons.  That explains how God can be a loving being from all eternity.  Hinduism on the other hand, points in the opposite direction; God is ultimately impersonal and beyond all distinctions.  Therefore, God is really us and we are God (Atman is Brahman).  On Hinduism, God is also a banana, building, and a barrio.  It is true that some Hindu thinkers, such as Ramanuja, have argued that God is both personal and part of creation.  Creation is God’s body, so to speak, always existent.  But Biblical religion posits that creation is God’s workmanship, something he made out of nothing (Gen. 1:1).  Creation is more like God’s garments that he puts on or a tent that he stretches out (Psalm 104).

3. Jesus’ teaching contradicts Hindu Avatars

Jesus not only taught that God was the infinite personal creator, but he also taught a very different way of spirituality.  Hinduism has many different paths of salvation such as the way of knowledge, the way of devotion, and the way of works.  Krishna, an avatar of Brahman, explains the “way of love” as a form of devotion in chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita, for example.  All these ways imply action primarily on the part of humans to achieve salvation.  Jesus teaches to the contrary that salvation is something that God achieves and that humans receive by trust (John 3:16; 6:29; Luke 15).  Good works and spiritual disciplines are a response to that God-achieved salvation.  Salvation is not a human achievement at all.  We see this, for example, in the account of the sinful woman who came and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears (Luke 7:36-50).   Jesus says that her actions were a result of faith and being forgiven, not vice versa.  Loving relationship is at the center of Christ’s teaching, and it is always a gift, one where God himself is the giver and relationship with him the gift.

4. The reason for incarnation/manifestation is very different

Jesus’ came to save his people from their sins and fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures offering ultimate reconciliation with God to all people.  His life, death, and resurrection is a work that accomplished God’s plan, bringing his story to its climax.  God had created people to be his image bearers, his vice-regents on earth, but they have, sometime in the primordial past, turned away from him.  God chose a man, Abraham, and then his descendants to be a special nation to represent him on earth.  Though they failed as his representatives time and again, he sent prophets who foretold the coming of a Savior, one who would bring people into harmony with God, themselves, others, and the creation.  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and then, in a grand-reversal of everyone’s expectations, died as a sacrificial victim and rose again.  I don’t have time to go into all the stunning parallels and implications or facts about all this.  one thing, however, is that his resurrection is the beginning of the restoration of all of creation.   As N.T. Wright points out, “The point of Christianity is not… to go to heaven when you die. [Rather, it is] putting the whole creation to rights…”  This is vastly different than Hindu avatars.  Avatars come to shift the karmic imbalance which, as far as Hindu scholars know, has always been the case.  The material order has always been rife with karmic imbalance, so the manifestations of Brahman are there to bring things back around a little, as the endless cycle of balance and imbalance continues.  Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “For the protection of the virtuous and the destruction of evil acts, for the purpose of establishing dharma, I become fully manifest from age to age.”  This karmic imbalance is one reason that salvation in Hinduism is escape from the material order, not redemption of it.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, Jesus is vastly different than Hindu avatars.  Since he is different, he cannot therefore be another Avatar.  In fact, one way to look at these two religions is to see one of them as preparatory for the other.  Perhaps one is a vague shadow with some truths, pointing to a reality, and the other one is the concrete reality.  The question is, which one is a vague shadow and which one a concrete reality?  Is there any way to figure that out?  Contrary to popular sentiment, worldviews should be assessed for their truth value, coherency, factual accuracy, and livability.  This is not inherently dishonorable but can be done with gentleness and respect.  Now that we have distinguished between Messiah and Avatar, we can continue on that journey of discovery.

Can we justify real morality in a godless world?

Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, promises us that morals can be objective and scientific with no reference to a deity.  All we have to do is accept the supposedly common sense idea that morality is nothing else than the well-being or happiness of conscious creatures.  Since, according to Harris, humankind is just material in makeup, happiness is simply physical and psychological.  He thinks that brain scans and neuroscience are key to unlocking more of our moral questions.  Well-being just is morality and morality well-being, so to speak.

The problem with this is that well-being and morality do not appear to be identical.  To figure out if two things are identical, we just need to consider whether they have the same properties.  For example, if I say red is the same as blue, we can determine quickly that they are not the same.  If I say that my wife, Meridith, is the same as Cleopatra, then all of the two women’s attributes would have to match.  In the same way, morality and well-being would have to be identical for them to be the same thing.

Are they?  Nerp.  Not exactly.  Let me illustrate.  It is possible to experience well-being upon sipping a cup of coffee or climbing a mountain.  Does that mean we have done something moral?  What about moral choices where our own well-being is negated, such as sacrificing our joy for the sake of another?  Further, what if we simply handed out medication to increase serotonin levels and make everyone happy?  Would that make the world moral?  I don’t think so.  Simply put, since well-being and moral actions do not have the exact same properties, they cannot be the same thing.  Well-being is part of morality, surely, but it is not the whole thing.

But let’s take this further.   Does it even make sense to say that physical states of well-being are the same as moral states?  I’d say no.  This is because of the is/ought problem.  What is this?  The philosopher, David Hume, pointed out that material things, or the “is,” can never imply a moral “ought.”  Stay with me here.  According to Hume, there is nothing about the world itself in its matter that could justify us saying, “you shouldn’t act like that.”  My brain states or chemistry can never produce a moral ought, such as “it’s wrong to take my Eggo waffle.”  Make sense?  It’s hard to wrap the mind around this, which is why Harris can get away with his casual dismissal of the is/ought problem.  Another example comes to us from the classic movie, “Psycho.”  As the murderer creeps up to the shower with his knife in hand, is there anything about that state of affairs that makes it so that he ought not kill the hapless woman?  Not really.  There is no ought coming from the killer or the knife or the shower curtain or the blissfully ignorant woman.  Moral duties or “oughts” need to come from some from somewhere, such as a non-physical being, adequate to explain moral experience.  Theists explain this with God, an all-powerful, good, and loving law-giver.  Harris’s best counter argument against the is/ought distinction, however, is simply to dismiss it out of hand and scoff at it.

One part of his argument is true, however; we can investigate nature and come to understand ethical situations better through various sciences.  Psychology might teach us more about why people behave with bias, giving us more compassion for others when they display it.  Social science shows us that a close connection with a mother and a father are vital for a child’s development and that a good relationship with a father figures curb violent tendencies in males.  Looking to nature to inform ethics is called natural law, an idea which helped form the foundation of our legal system.  But Harris’s anti-God worldview leads to a universe where there is no ultimate purpose, value, or meaning.  Unfortunately, even conscious creatures like us do not have the miraculous power to endow nature with these bountiful gifts.

What is bullshit and why is there so much of it?

Harry Frankfurt’s influential essay “On Bullshit” is comically titled.  As the essay progresses, however, the comedy gives way to serious social commentary.  Frankfurt writes, “One of the most salient features of our culture is the proliferation of bullshit.  Everyone knows this.  Each of us contributes his share.  But we tend to take the situation for granted.”  Just as the fish does not stop swimming to notice water, so we, living in our time and place, scarcely stop to wonder, why all the bullshit?

What is bullshit?  According to Frankfurt, bullshit is when people represent themselves as being accurate when they have no concern for whether what they are saying is actually true or not.  The result could be true or not, but the communicator does not care much either way.  Bullshit might bring to mind a high school student’s college entrance essay sincerely describing beliefs that he does not in fact hold.  Or it may call to mind the typical argument between lovers where the man argues that he couldn’t get around to washing the dishes sitting in the sink even though he had three hours.

Another aspect of bullshit is when the speaker says something without much concern for the actual words she is using.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit starts off with an apt example.  Gandalf strolls up to the unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins, who quickly says, “Good morning!”  The wizard responds, saying, “What do you mean?  Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on.”  Bilbo responds, “all of them at once.”  Phrases like good morning do betray a lack of accuracy that we seldom examine.  Which meaning do we mean when we say it?  We tend to mean that we hope the person has a good morning, I suspect.  Later, when Bilbo tries to get rid of Gandalf, he says “good morning” in another sense, that of goodbye.  The ever wry and perceptive Gandalf points this out to the unadventurous Hobbit.  Bullshit often has this sense of inaccuracy of wording or thought.  So many of our expressions have the same quality.  How many of us have actually been in a butt kicking contest with a one legged man, for example?  I’d say none of us.  The point is that we ought to think about what we mean before we say it, just like Mom used to tell us.

Our inaccuracy often betrays our lack of concern for the truth.  This is the crux of the matter.  Many people in Western society today take the skeptical route, either rejecting  the existence of truth or of ever knowing truth.  If you cannot really know the truth, then why bother with accuracy of reasoning from evidence?  The result is an epidemic of unvirtuous intellects.  All the while, we often try our best to be sincere and authentic.  If we cannot know the truth, perhaps we can still be true to ourselves.  Yet the problem, as Frankfurt points out, is that if we cannot know truth, how can we know truth about ourselves?  Our own natures are just as illusive, if not more so, than any other object in the universe.  Being “authentic” without pursuing truth, is, in fact, bullshit.

What’s the anti-bullshit route?  It involves actually thinking about ideas, facts, and truth.  Yes, you may end up holding some false positions, but you can always improve as you learn more.  This is the anti-meme, anti-sentimentality, anti-mainstream media, anti-anti-intellectual route.  And, yes, this actually means we have to read good books.  These must be real books, not just short articles on the net.  From the looks of it, very few are taking this route today.  But just because that is the case does not mean that it has to be the case for any one of us.  The rebellion has begun…against bullshit.