7 Fundamental Differences Between Eastern Religions and Christianity

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The Growth of Eastern Ideology in the West

Few aware of religion’s landscape within the western world would deny that Eastern, Asian philosophies, religions, doctrines, and dogmas typically are making a substantial impact within previously predominantly Christian, Western countries. There is likely a combination of several reasons for this, one of which would be expansion in communication technologies that have shrunken the globe into a global village. For example, New Age Spirituality, an amalgamation of Eastern religious practices and philosophies, is perhaps the major current religious movement, phenomenon, and representative of this spiritual trend. The New Age has captured the minds of many younger people who find enjoyment in the mysteries of spiritualism, the supernatural and the divine. The growth in interest for this is also because many are hungry to pursue spirituality beyond the confines of traditional religion (which in the West happens to be Christianity) in search for something diverse, mysterious, cultural, expressive, and foreign. It is therefore no longer surprising to see books, or sacred texts, dedicated to these religions within Western bookstores. As such, entire sections in the local bookstore are dedicated to the likes of mysticism and Eastern philosophy, and one should, with minimal effort, come across the Vedas of Hinduism, the Pali Canon of Buddhism, and the Yi-Ching of Confucianism.

However, as with the mishmash of ideologies, religions, and philosophies, there are going to be differences, thus this brief post attempts to illustrate several differences between Eastern religions and Christianity as we understand them. This would help to give readers a better understanding of these often considered mysterious Eastern beliefs.

1. The Concept of God – Pantheism versus Monotheism

In some Eastern worldviews God is thought to be an impersonal force or principle that does not transcend nature. This view is known as pantheism, the belief that God is part of or in some way joined to the natural, physical, material world. This is quite different to Christian theism in its monotheistic concept of God. On this view, God fully transcends creation, and is responsible for creation. As such, God existed prior to creation. God is also deemed personal as he is manifest within his creation, and in some way personally related to human beings, such as in their rationality, moral cognition, and in the historical person of Jesus. The Christian concept of God is also ascribed other attributes such as being eternal, loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and so on, none of which is typically understood as a pantheistic concept.

2. God versus gods

As stated, Christianity also affirms monotheism (or exclusive monotheism), the view that there is just one all-powerful God but in the form of a trinity (three distinct persons such as God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), whereas the majority of, for example, Hindus are polytheistic. Polytheism is simply the belief in  many gods, in the same way as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptian had their many gods as they existed within hierarchies and pantheons. Being polytheistic Hinduism has its pantheon, with the most popular deities being Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu of all who have come to earth in various incarnations to the aid of human beings or avatars. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the god Vishnu was incarnated in the person of Krishna.

3. Oneness with God or a Divine Reality

Furthermore, an Eastern worldview is also significantly different  to Christian theism in the way that for many the ultimate goal of humanity is to become one with nature because nature is God. Proponents such as Deepak Chopra believe that all humans are divine and they just don’t realize it, and that they must attain ultimate oneness with this divine being. This is similar to what Hindus believe, namely that attaining knowledge of true Self (Atman), one can become one with Brahman, the Ultimate Reality and Supreme Cosmic Spirit in the universe.

In Christianity, however, human beings are deemed to have been made in God’s image. This means they bear some traits of God, and, by implication, are distinct from God. There is no notion within Christianity of becoming one with God, although believers look forwards to spending their eternal destinies in God’s presence.

4. Views of the Universe

Christianity and Hinduism, for example, differ in their conception of the universe, especially relating to its nature and beginning. Hindu sacred texts hold to a view of the universe that does not sit well with what modern cosmologists and astronomers known from Big Bang cosmology. Rather, Hinduism would appear to favour a cyclical model of the universe, by deeming it to be cyclically created and destroyed. This also means Hindus believe in an eternal universe, not one that had a finite beginning at some point in the past.

The Christian biblical view is quite different for it asserts that an all-powerful, creator God created the “heavens and the earth” at the beginning. Some have noted that this sounds much like the current scientific understanding of the Big Bang event. Either way, the biblical narrative assumes a creation event, that creation isn’t eternal, and that it owes its existence to an all-powerful creator deity.

5. The Historical Jesus 

Behind many religions there are founders or at least characters considered very important. Behind Buddhism, for example, there’s the Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama), behind Islam there’s Muhammad, behind Christianity there’s Jesus Christ, and so on. But what makes Christianity distinctive from Eastern traditions is the historical Christ. The Buddha, for example, pursued enlightenment, and wished to help others achieve similarly (as through their understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path). Christ brought quite a different message, however. Christ proclaimed what he deemed the one true Kingdom of God. Christ had come to rescue sinners from sin, and provide a pathway back to the God who would not abandon his people. How did Christ believe he would go about achieving this? No other way but to die a shameful death on a Roman cross. Christ’s claim to deity was well communicated through his frequent self-designation as the “Son of Man,” a messianic figure described through vivid detail in Daniel 7 of the Old Testament.

This renders Christ’s message different to the likes of the Buddha, and other religious figures. For example, inherent within the Buddha’s teachings was an element of denial, namely, the denial of the self, which was deemed to be behind man’s spiritual blindness. Christ didn’t teach a denialism, but affirmed that human beings were truly made in God’s image, thus having their identity in God. He taught this well aware of humankind’s sinful nature and their alienation from their God.

6. History

In some Buddhist views, the historical reality of the Buddha is not crucial to the truth of Buddhism. The Buddha might not have existed and taught what he did, and yet some other figure might have attained enlightenment in some similar manner, and paved the foundations for Buddhism and later Buddhists. As such, enlightenment wasn’t limited to Buddha, he simply showed others how to attain it. But this would be sorely incompatible for Christianity. Christianity’s most core and foundational elements are based upon the historical Christ, his deity as it was manifested within history, and perhaps most importantly in his historical resurrection. Christianity is predicated on a sequence of historical events intimately connected to its founder that without which it could not exist. In this way, a historical Christ is absolutely foundational to the religion and its truth claims.

7. Reincarnation versus Sin

This is an important distinction which is undoubtedly linked to point 5, the Historical Christ, above, but yet is warranted enough to stand on its own.

Eastern belief does not often view human beings as something separate from God. To the contrary, Christianity teaches that all people have fallen short of the glory of God through sin, and are therefore separated from God. In Hindu belief the soul has always existed and will continue to exist until via a process of rebirths (reincarnation) it has merged with the Ultimate Reality that is Brahman. The process of reincarnation and the journey to the Ultimate Reality (or becoming one with it) is dictated by the doctrine of karma. On karma, our actions have consequences: good actions create good karma and bad actions create bad karma. Moksha is the idea of liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth in Hinduism. By achieving Moksha, one is liberated and achieves Nirvana, thus becoming one with Brahman. This is quite different to Christianity. By only placing one’s faith in Christ’s work on the cross which paid the penalty for sin can one be saved. There is no concept of reincarnation, rebirths, or karma. There is nothing that human beings can do to save themselves from God’s judgement, hence why Christ was given for sins.

9 responses to “7 Fundamental Differences Between Eastern Religions and Christianity

  1. Interestingly, the 1996 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion was Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. But the very next year the winner was a Hindu, Shastri Athavale, whose spiritual and social activism was inspired by the The Bhagavad Gita. Athavale has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to spend two weeks or more visiting India’s poorest villages where they seek to advance the self-respect and economic condition of those they visit. For more than four decades Athavale has taught that service to God is incomplete without service to humanity.

    Or as one Indian Catholic priest candidly told a British journalist, “Although my family had been Christians for generations and I had been through the full rigors of a Jesuit training, I still, in my heart of hearts, feel closer to the God Krishna than to Jesus.” (In Indian courts of law, people swear with their hand on The Bhagavad Gita not the Bible, and there are even popular Indian books with titles like, The Bhagavada Gita for Executives by V. Ramanathan.)  

    Many Buddhists experience a loving forgiving savior, Amida Buddha (see The Inner Eye of Love by William Johnson, a Jesuit who dialogued with Amida Buddhists in Japan).

    While Prof. Conrad Hyers, a Protestant Christian scholar, studied a branch of Zen whose adherents focused on experiencing a hellish sense of guilt and unworthiness which was often followed by a feeling of it having been lifted, forgiveness, ecstatic love and joy, similar to that Born Again Christians experiemce, see his book, Once Born Twice Born Zen. 

    Oddly enough, one version of the Buddha’s life that reached Europe from India underwent subtle changes along the way, until the Buddha became a Christian saint! According to that version the “prince” who “lived in India” was named “Josaphat,” and he was a “Great Renouncer.” Research into the origins of “Saint Josaphat,” revealed that the Latin name, “Josaphat,” was based on an earlier version of the story in which the Greek name “Ioasaph” was used, which came from the Arabic “Yudasaf,” which came from the Manichee “Bodisaf,” which came from “Bodhisattva” in the original story of the Buddha. (A “Bodhisattva” is a person who achieves great spiritual enlightenment yet remains on earth to help others.) Thus the Buddha came to be included in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

    Also, some of the earliest Jesuit missionaries to China, who read the Far Eastern book of wisdom, the Tao Te Ching, returned to Rome and requested that that book be added to the Bible, because it contained teachings on non-violence, love and humility that paralleled and preceded Jesus’ teachings by hundreds of years. (Many of those parallels are commented on in The Tao of Jesus: An Exercise in Inter-Traditional Understanding by Joseph A. Loya, O.S.A, Wan-Li Ho, and Chang-Shin Jih.)

    Eastern religions also feature stories of miracles and visions, along with stories of saintly Hindus and Buddhists who died beautifully and serenely. In some cases a sweet flowery odor is said to have come from their corpses. In another case a corpse allegedly turned into flowers at death. All in all, the stories rival those of Catholic saints and their miracles. In fact, “sainthood” is a phenomenon common to all the world’s religions. “Pilgrimages” to sites deemed “holy” are also common among Buddhists and Hindus just as they are among Catholics. Needless to say, reading about Hinduism and Buddhism in books written by Christian apologists is no substitute for reading books written by Hindus and Buddhists. A tour of any large bookstore can provide plenty of interesting titles by both Hindu and Buddhist authors. (9 myths about Hinduism debunked http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/25/9-myths-about-hinduism-debunked/ )

  2. Famed sociologist Peter L. Berger pointed this out about the mutability of religious beliefs depending on the overall culture:

    “Americans are geniuses at transforming originally grim religious doctrines and practices into something more optimistic, making the insertion of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ clause into the Declaration of Independence inadvertently prophetic. During the first Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards offered salvation to all comers at revival meetings, an invitation that stood in considerable tension with the carnivorous Calvinism to which he still adhered. Edwardsʼ ‘angry God’ became progressively more user-friendly through the ensuing centuries, culminating with Billy Graham, who could play amicable gold with people whom earlier revivalists would have threatened with fire and brimstone. Another Protestant stream led all the way to Norman Vincent Peale and his smiling God (though the denomination to which Peale belonged derives from the movement in the Dutch Reformation that rejected strict Calvinism). There are non-Protestant analogues. Psychoanalysis, a doctrine rooted in profound Viennese pessimism, morphed in America into a variety of cheerfully optimistic therapies of self-improvement and self-esteem.

    “Buddhism (estimated to have 800,000 converts in the U.S.; and the fastest growing faith in the UK in the 1990s with over 500 Buddhist centres and meditation sites today) underwent a similarly benign transformation. Its historical roots are in the peculiarly Indian horror of reincarnation—misnamed the ‘wheel of life’ but better called the ‘wheel of death’—from which Buddha sought release. Lo and behold, for many Americans (and Brits) reincarnation is now understood as the cheering prospect of another chance.

    “American culture has indeed been a drama of the pursuit of happiness, and American religion has been part of this drama. This cheerful way of looking at the world, which is part of the very structure of American culture, can be seen in the experience of all newcomers to the country of what the sociologist John Murray Cuddihy has aptly called the ‘ordeal of civility.’ Immigrants to American had to learn to be more mellow, less aggressive in their beliefs and values. It was characteristic of an America that was a remarkably open society [with more flexible class boundaries, a greater variety of beliefs, etc.].”
    Source: Peter L. Berger, “Americaʼs Smiling God,” First Things, April 2012 [ed., etb]

  3. There are even what one might call “fundamentalist” Hindus, like the one who asked Joseph Campbell, “What do scholars think of the Vedas [the most ancient Hindu holy books]?” Campbell answered, “The dating of the Vedas has been reduced to 1500 to 1000 B.C., and there have been found in India itself the remains of an earlier civilization than the Vedic.” “Yes,” said the Indian gentleman, “I know; but as an orthodox Hindu I cannot believe that there is anything in the universe earlier than the Vedas.”

    It’s obvious that the study of the world’s holy books by historical, archeological and literary scholars continues to provoke tension and discomfort in “Vedic believing” Hindus, “Koran believing” Moslems, and “Bible believing” Christians (like McDowell). So there is nothing “unique” about “Bible believing” Christians in that respect.

  4. 7

    Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that us westerners are just sick of being told that we are going to hell and that we are sinners and that Christians have in essence a negative approach to selling there faith at the tip of a sword? Eastern religions do not do this at all and typically wait for newcomers to come to them with questions.
    Secondly Christian logic especially the apologetic logic really lacks any sort of cohesion. Eastern religions have deep philosophical traditions behind them and generally one learns from experience and no faith in the unknown is required. Perhaps Christianity could learn something from this.

    QP

    • I think many are unreceptive to the gospel because of its exclusive message, of which the doctrines of sin and hell are a part of. What Christianity needs, and which is sadly absent in many Christians, is a gentle way of communicating this, thus not feeding into the perception you have of Christianity, which is “that us westerners are just sick of being told that we are going to hell and that we are sinners”

      In respect to your second point, you would need to show why Christian apologetic logic lacks cohesion, and that Eastern religions have some kind of unison.

      • What I meant about my second point about apologetics is that as far as I understand apologetics should defend the faith when attacked and argue the church doctrine logically and with good evidence. From what j see with apologetics is that they proselytize by trying to prove other religions wrong often with lies and poorly sourced facts and arguments. This is really just nonsense and ends up discrediting Christianity further.

        I am a former Christian and left the church for the aforementioned reasons among others.

        QP

  5. I think the image is misleading, Buddhism is in many ways unlike the pantheistic Hindu and other religions.

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