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.
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.