Monday, August 14, 2017

The Allure of Eastern Religions

There are times when those who live secular lives in the West are allured by religions of the East, such as any form of Hinduism or Buddhism. At the same time the same individuals may show little or no interest in religions of the West, mainly any one of the many flavors of Christianity. Remember The Beatles? They had everything the secular West could offer in terms of outward abundance, but sought more from the East.

"Help, I need somebody
Help, not just anybody"
- The Beatles
My impression has been that Eastern Religions have a more relaxed and ambiguous moral code and set of beliefs than Catholicism or even Christianity in general, so it might attract those who claim to be spiritual, but not religious; those who like things loosey-goosey. My thoughts expanded somewhat after reading THIS ARTICLE from The Catholic Thing. The article touches on the confusion about “being” itself.

Absolute Oneness
In the West, absolute autonomy is a key “dogma”; this relates to the belief that no one can tell you what is right or wrong (for you). You need to figure that out for yourself and thus make your own meaning to life. In essence you become your own god, and since humans live in societies, you need to acknowledge the autonomous rights of others so we can all live harmoniously as co-equal gods. As this kind of dogma tightens its grip on us, we become self-centered instead of God-centered and everything becomes intense and dramatic. I think this is most evident in our present day political discourse.

Those who grow weary of the intense drama found in a narcissistic culture may finally seek solace in some sort of spirituality. But how can one hold on to absolute autonomy and still be “spiritual”? In this case I believe it’s helpful to view God, or “being itself”, as something like “The Force” from Star Wars. The Force tends to be impersonal, without a strict moral code; it can also be manipulated to do our will. At the same time, The Force seems to be omnipresent and omnipotent and even has a will of its own according to Jedi Knight, Qui-Gon Jinn (@1min, 24s).

“Always remember…your focus determines your reality.”
— Qui-Gon Jinn

The Judeo-Christian story doesn’t sync well with the view of God as a “force”. Would an impersonal life force ever concern itself with man and his little world, his cares or his sins? Would it make convents with us or become a man like us and die for us; would it ever call us “children” and should we ever call it “Father”?

In Eastern Religions Nirvana (in Buddhism) and Moksha (in Hinduism) speak of breaking the cycle of birth, death and re-birth and reaching a transcendent state of bliss as an ultimate goal. The tendency in Eastern Religions destines man to become indistinguishable from the whole of being. Although many insist on absolute autonomy, being absorbed into an ultimate state of bliss after death mirrors the idea of living in utopia (or bliss) in this life as co-equal gods. In this sense secular Western mentality is well-suited for Eastern Religion and the idea of “being” as absolute oneness.

Absolute Otherness
The opposite view is absolute otherness. If we view God as simply one being among many, like a fairy in the sky or a flying spaghetti monster, we might imagine him as a being that will not embrace everything and everyone, or worse yet, some kind of competitor. Compare this to two small fish in the ocean debating the reality of water. Water is so vast, penetrating and all-encompassing that it is invisible to the fish. If we look for water in the ocean like we look for other objects, like a mermaid, we’ll become confused at best, gravely deceived at worst. Generally, we do not say there is water in the ocean. We are more apt to say the ocean is water, but at the same time we know the meaning of "ocean" is not precisely the same as the meaning of "water".

Islam also syncs with the view of God as absolute other; he is the absolute master and we are absolute slaves. Those who submit to the absolute will of Allah, as dictated through the sacred books of Islam are in a kind of safe space. Those who refuse to submit are not so safe in some Islamic circles—to put it gently. Man is really nothing in himself in comparison to the absolute being of God and I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a Muslim who calls Allah “Father”.

“It’s hard to say which of these two denials of the analogy of being…do the most damage. In both cases, there’s a tremendous cost in terms of the denigration of human dignity and devaluing of the individual person.”1

Catholicism
In Catholicism there are aspects of both oneness and otherness. God is God and we are not. The creation can never be the creator and vise-versa. At the same time God is defined by knowing and loving. We can be known, loved and adopted into the family of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit—and even have Mary as a Mother! By calling God “Father” and “Almighty”, the Catholic Creed joins together a loving family concept that relates more to “oneness” and the cosmic power that relates more to “otherness”. This expresses accurately a main point of the Christian image of God. It resolves the tension between absolute distance and absolute proximity, absolute otherness and direct kinship, the greatest and the least, and the first and the last. God is both-and, not either-or. 2

You're kinda lost without it...
Consider an analogy from lay apologist Frank Sheed.3 Imagine God’s grace as an electric current and an individual person as an old fashioned filament light bulb. With no electrical current the bulb has no light. Increase the current and we can see some light as the filament glows. Keep increasing the current and the glow intensifies more and more. If the current is strong enough, the light can glow so bright that we no longer can see the filament and surrounding bulb… all we see is light! Thus the bulb and the light appear to be one, but we know the electric current or the light is not the bulb and visa-versa. In the same way God’s grace can flow so strongly through a person it gives the impression of absolute oneness, but the reality of otherness remains.

The Lord "is always close, being at the root of our being. Yet we must experience our relationship with God between the poles of distance and closeness."
— Romano Guardini



1. Fr. Mark A. Pilon , The Catholic Thing [Website], “The Vital Analogy of Being” (329 June 2017), Site address: https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2017/06/29/that-vital-analogy-of-being/
2. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) p. 148-149.
3. Frank Sheed , Theology and Sanity, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) p. 403.