Isms and Facts

Can facts correct your isms?  Or do isms correct your facts?  We all have particular beliefs.  Some of them we hold onto without even noticing them.  The philosopher Charles Taylor called these our “unthoughts.”  These are what we think without reflection, often without confirmation.  J. Warner Wallace, a famous cold case detective, says we ought to seek facts, not evidence.  Evidence so often helps us rationalize our unthoughts.  But most of us want evidence, not pesky facts that could challenge us.  Few people, in fact, step outside of what society generally allows them to believe.

So, for example, society tells us that religion is alright if we find our own personal meaning in it.  Most people only think of meaning as a property of their minds. Meaning is just in our heads, not out there in the real world.  But it’s not generally understood today that a religion could actually be true, even historically verifiable.  Since religion is something we simply make meaning of, it cannot have the ability to change our lifestyles much.  We don’t need to take up our crosses and follow a real Jesus very much.  Thus we can go to church on Sundays and live mostly for ourselves the rest of the week.  It goes without saying, though perhaps I need to say it, that this depiction is at odds with historical and orthodox Christianity.  I also think the idea of making your own meaning is incoherent, but that’s another story.

Another example of “unthought” is our preoccupation with race, class, and gender.  Many of our assumptions about this modern trinity go completely unchallenged.  We are told there is systemic racism and instead of researching what that means and looking for facts to support it or deny it, we simply accept it.  For white people it is good virtue-signalling to accept it because if you don’t, you are considered racist.  Sure there is still individual racism, which is very unfortunate, but systemic racism?  How do we define that? We have so much “white guilt” (as the much ridiculed black conservative author Shelby Steele points out) that we’re afraid to look into it. But when we boil it down, it is very hard to substantiate systemic racism as existent today. As far as class goes, we are told that when the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, as if economics were a zero sum game.  One reading of Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacy would blow this view to smithereens, but that takes away from watching our favorite TV shows. With gender, we are told that it is simply a social construct with no biological meaning.  If you examine these concepts, you will find out very quickly that all this is based on extremely muddled thinking rather than facts, research, stats and so on.  But again, most of us feel our way through life, keeping ourselves busy with constant amusement, unaware that “a-muse” means to not think.  We don’t think while we slowly walk onward towards our mortal end with nothing substantial to truly follow, leaving life half-lived and truth half-sought.

And we wonder why people are so sensitive today.  Well, if your worldview is completely subjective, not based on facts at all, and I challenge it, how are you going to react?  You’re going to react like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Jingle All the Way,” with total panic. “Put that cookie [fact] down! Now!”  Or perhaps you’ll be more like one of Jim Jones or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cult followers.  You’ll just smile, knowing that you know the truth because…well…you just feel it.

Quick Guide to Karma

Often I hear something like this, “It’s karma,” which appears to mean something like “what you do will come back around to you later in life.”  We hear this phrase everywhere from the grocery store to Radiohead’s song “Karma Police.”  A refrain in the song is, “this is what you’ll get, when you mess with us.”  All this is puzzling and a bit amusing because it is clear that westerners haven’t the foggiest idea what karma actually is.  What they mean when they use it is “you will reap what you sow.”  They have a notion that there is some kind of ironic, cosmic justice that catches those who do evil off guard and cuts them down to size.  Another layer of irony is that this idea has more similarities with the biblical narratives than with actual karma.  Let me flesh that out.

The biblical narratives teach that the transcendent and personal God is just and that he brings an ironic reversal on those who do evil.  God is working for justice in the world to lift up the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.  One day God will put everything right in this world.

But karma in Hinduism (this is similar to how it is used in various forms of its cousin religion, Buddhism), is related to the idea that since forever ago there has been a wheel of good and evil, of death and rebirth (samsara).  This struggle has always been, and it always will be.  Karma is the principle that you will be payed back for evil and rewarded for good.  But that does not so much happen in this life.  According to karma, in this life, you are being repaid for good and evil of your previous lives.  Your next life will repay you for good and evil from this life.  The ultimate point of seeking enlightenment on Hinduism as well as Buddhism is escape from this cosmic wheel of misfortune.

So the irony is that when people say, “it’s karma,” they are implying either that the person did something wrong in a past life or that he did something now and will be payed back in his next life.  Another irony is that we westerners tend to be very democratic and egalitarian.  We don’t like aristocracy bossing us around.  But karma implies that various classes of society are the result of karmic justice.  This is why they have a Brahmin class in India along with the Dalit class, the untouchables.  An interesting book along this topic is Why I am Not a Hindu by a Dalit named Kancha Ilaiah.  In his book, Ilaiah exposes the many injustices of the caste system in India.

So next time someone tells you “it’s karma,” perhaps you should ask them, “what do you mean?  Do you mean that such a person has been reincarnated and is being punished for crimes of a past life?  Or do you mean that this person will be punished in a future life, perhaps by being reborn as a lower class?”  That might spoil the dinner party, but it would orient the conversation towards the question of real meaning.  And unless a conversation is oriented around meaning and truth, it’s just bullshit in the end.

 

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.