Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat
A reader with the diminutive name of Michael the Lesser asks:
Dear Mr. Wright,
I recently read your conversion story as you posted last year and some of the comments that followed. I was intrigued that you expressed the conviction that Christianity was more mature and philosophically advanced than the Eastern religions.
I have a friend, who is a Catholic convert, but struggles with letting go to of her attachment to Hinduism and specifically Hare Krishna.
So, in what ways do you see that Christianity is more mature and philosophically advanced than Eastern religions?
An excellent question, and I tremble to think I now must make good on my rash words, for I fear my powers are inadequate.
As with all philosophical conversations, we must begin with definitions, lest we be misled into thinking some claim not present is being made.
I say that Christianity is more mature and philosophically advanced than the Eastern religions.
By Christianity, I mean both Orthodox and Catholic, Nestorian, Coptic, Monophysite, Melkite, Protestant and so on. Middle Eastern and Russian and Greek sects of Christianity tend to be ignored by modern historians: I am confining my comment to the mainstream that all branches that the river of life we call the Church have in common.
By Eastern religion, I mean Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto. Of other Oriental creeds I make no claim. My claim is further restricted only to those aspects of the creeds known to me by hearsay through casual reading or conversation. I have never been a member of any of them, and therefore speak as an outsider. I do not include Sikh, Jain, or other creeds with which I am unfamiliar, nor tribal legends and lore from Siberia to Indochina. I do not include Mohammedanism here as an Oriental religion: it is a Christian heresy, albeit a successful one, which has committed successful matricide against its Church in the lands of Africa and Asia which formerly were orthodox.
“More mature” does not mean “more true. “More advanced” does not mean “better” or even “I like it more.” Those claims, if made, would be defended by other arguments. While I personally happen at this stage of my life to think that the Christian creed is more true than Indian or Chinese creeds, this does not enter into the argument, which must stand or fall on its own merits.
We live in the midst of a Dark Age, that is, an age when intellectual and literate things are despised by the intellectuals and the literati. A Dark Age approves of emotional rather than intellectual response, the emotions judged and ranked according to purity and glitter, like precious stones.
In the case of a claim like the one here being made, where no particular emotion is provoked, it is necessary for the Dark Age to substitute a different and more emotional claim, in order for its mechanisms of thought-free emotional reaction to operate. Intellectuals will interpret the claim that one thing is more developed than a second to be a claim that the first is to be preferred in all ways than the second, and that this preference is arbitrary if not bigotry, vaunting, mere trumpet-blowing.
All readers are cautioned to be on guard against this reaction, which is so prevalent in these days of political correctness as to be as invisible to us as water is invisible to fish.
I am not arguing that Christianity is great and heathenism is wretched: I am arguing that the relation of Christianity to the other great religions of the world is that of a later development implied in a prior stage, as a youth stands to a boy, or a butterfly to caterpillar. (I write the foregoing qualification with the confident prediction that it will be ignored, and in full knowledge that it was words wasted. Those armored in invincible ignorance cannot be overcome by feeble arms of reason.)
To claim one thing is more mature or more advanced than another assumes two things, and these are both assumptions that present Dark Age will not grant:
The first assumption made by the claim is that there is an organic and natural process of philosophical development of creeds, or, in other words, that the thoughts of men are deliberate and not arbitrary, and that all men’s creeds and philosophies tend (when in keeping with nature) toward a convergent end.
Moderns assume this is true for the physical sciences only: to claim it is true of philosophical or religious creeds does not match modern ideas of empiricism. Since only the physical sciences can reach their conclusion by means of the tool of empiricism, moderns assume that there is nothing outside the physical sciences, and that all metaphysical or intellectual disciplines aside from physics are mere opinion or mere nonsense. (This modern assumption is indefensible, and its partisans, to my knowledge, have never attempted a defense of it.) The claim here is that philosophies and creeds develop from primitive to mature forms, and are not merely arbitrary conglomerations of assertions and opinions.
What is development? Development is a natural, normal, non-arbitrary and non-subjective process of maturation. A development is not mere change. A prince being turned by a witch into a frog is a mere change. There is nothing about froggyness which grows naturally out of princeliness. A caterpillar being turned by process of growth into a butterfly, or a boy into a young man, is a development. One differences is that the element present, if inchoate, in the earlier stages, even if altered, are present in the later .
A development is also not decay. When ape-man changes by Darwinian process into a man, that is a growth. When a man changes by Darwinian process into the Morlock of HG Wells, that is a decay. When a wounded limb turns gangrenous by natural process, that is also a decay. The mere fact that something comes later in time than something else does not necessarily mean it is a maturation or a development in the sense that the word development is being used here. A decayed or decadent change occurs when the end served by the development is frustrated.
The second assumption made by the claim is that the men of the Eastern Hemisphere are not inferior, or even particularly different, than the men of the Western.
By way of contrast, multiculturalism assumes implicitly that there is an innate inferiority of the colored races to the Aryans, and proposes that it would be impolite to mention this when the inferiors are within earshot. The bitterness and frequency with which the moderns accuse the innocent of being racist can be weighed as evidence or their own unadmitted racism; it is what psychologists call projection. Hence, a multiculturalist makes a great outward show of modestly downplaying the great accomplishments of the West and boosting the modest accomplishments of the East, to the point where scathing denunciations are heaped on any who even speak of the accomplishments as ‘accomplishments’ (which implies an objective goal being reached) rather than as mere arbitrary changes, no one of which is better nor different than the other (which implies no goal).
One method of boosting Eastern accomplishments is to propose that their religions and creeds are radically different from Western religions and creeds, based on mystical insights invisible to Western minds. Much ado is made of how mysterious and incomprehensible the East is to the West, and, indeed, the multiculturalist hints with supercilious eyebrow or says outright with a sneer that Oriental peoples or aboriginal tribes have insights lost to the West due to the crippling blindness of our logical and scientific and materialist world view, or perhaps due to the intolerance and rigidity of our Judeo-Christian mind-set.
So, then, what is being claimed here is that elements present in Eastern religions are also present in Western paganism, and that these elements are present in a mature form in Christianity, but not as a decay.
In other words, in order for this argument to prevail, or even to seem persuasive, we must justify the assumptions on which the claim is based: first, to show that creeds develop naturally toward a a given end rather than change arbitrarily by accident, and second, to we must show that Eastern creeds and Western are not different in any radical or fundamental way.
Let me dispose of the second question first, since it is both easier to answer and less worthy of our attention.
Pythagoreans, like Hindus, preach reincarnation; Stoics, like Confucians, make a religion out of reason and virtue; Neoplatonists, like Buddhists, seek transcendental truth; the ecstatic mystics of the East do not do anything the ecstatic Maenads of Dionysus did not do, or the shamans who swallow peyote in spirit quests; magic was openly practiced in West and East, except only where Western, that is, Judo-Christian strictures have dismissed it as unscientific or irrational; and black magic to the point of human sacrifice was practiced openly in Carthage, and Tenochtitlan as it was among Kali thugs, until invaders put down the practice; and in both East and West popular feasts and festivals were solemnized by priestly castes or classes, Levites or Magi or Brahmins. Neither temples, nor incense, nor sacred music, no animal sacrifice, nor any other aspect of rite or ritual or religion is found to be unique.
Such cases could be multiplied. There seems to be no particular spirit animating the East which was not also present in the West.
And, not to place too great an emphasis on the point, the only spirit present in the West absent in the East, was that Holy Spirit who moved among the prophets of Jewry, and named them a Chosen People of a jealous God who fiercely loved them, whereas the gods of the surrounding heathens loved perhaps Io and Europa and Callisto and even young and beardless Ganymede, but love for mankind seemed to be the prerogative of the one titan who defied the gods, and was nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus for his compassion.
Now, it may seem impossible for the agnostic to see why one race of people should be blessed with a particular spiritual insight in Monotheism which eventually became the dominant view of the West: but I will point out that in other fields, we have other clusters of geniuses, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle in Philosophy, or Maxwell, Watt, Bell, and Fleming in inventions, who appeared within one race in a short span of time.
So, the religious sentiments of man in both hemispheres seem to have marked similarities, or, at least, nothing which would lead us to heed that there is some genetic difference in psychology or intelligence, nor some vast accident of history, which makes classical Mediterranean peoples superior to or inferior to the peoples of Near and Far East in matters of religion.
Whether one is theist or atheist, I hope all can agree that there is a development going on through history, rather than mere change. Whether the goal at which all religious thought and revelation aims was designed by God to draw all men to Himself, or whether religion is nothing more than the manifestation of psychological flaws universal to mankind which naturally fall into ever more elaborate and complete forms, is not the question here. The sole question is whether this evolution is an evolution, that is, a maturation process toward an end, or whether it is merely mutation and change not directed to any particular end.
As a Christian, I hold that all men, created by God and with minds and spirits shaped by Him, were given a drive as instinctive and innate as the drive of parent to love child, or man to seek his mate. Those few men who seem not to have this drive, I hold have perverted it to other ends, seeking the satisfaction that only unity with God provides either in philosophy or politics or in some base and vain pleasure-seeking.
When I was an atheist, I held that all men, evolved, not created, by inherently orderly natural processes, were inevitably instilled with basic survival drives and with a reason which enabled them to perceive the moral order of the universe (morality being little more than logic, that is to say, self-consistency, applied to moral questions), and that the vanity of the natural human desire for life and justice not found in this world prompted the gullible to envision another world, like fairyland, where life was eternal and injustice nonexistent. Those few men who seem not to have this drive, I held were superior beings, bold and enlightened yet lonely Prometheans in the degrading swamp of a superstition-addicted world. That men smarter than I were not atheists was a source of wonder and puzzlement, and left one shaking one’s head at the persistence of the “meme” or psychological viral weakness that softened the skulls of so many fine men: atheism is not a philosophy that inclines one to humility.
From either theist or atheist viewpoint, one can derive the basic drives that pull men toward religion.
(1) RITUALISM — an appetite for ceremony and ritual, including supplication and sacrifice, purification, thanksgiving, and meditation or contemplation;
(2) PHILOSOPHY — the inevitable need for a coherent worldview;
(3) MORALITY– the craving for the justice not found on Earth;
(4) IMMORTALITY — the fear of pain, suffering, and death;
(5) TRANSCENDENCE — the longing for a higher type of life, glimpsed by mystics, but otherwise indescribable, of a union with God, and peace and joy transcendent.
These five ends or goals of the religious end in man I list here from most universal to least. Every human society whatsoever has rites and rituals; but not every society seeks mystical union with the divine, or deems it possible.
Atheists seem not to have the first and fifth appetites or longings, and resign themselves stoically to living without the seeking to sate the third and fourth. The second is fulfilled among atheists either by Philosophy, which we can define as the attempt to understand the meaning of life by skeptical reasoning without the aid of revelation and without taking the conclusions of authorities as granted; or it is fulfilled by Sophophobia, which we can define as taking as granted the conclusions of authorities unskeptically and unreasonably, provided those authorities just so happen to say what flatters the popular fashion at the time, or offers cheap excuse for contemplated crime.
The first type of atheist does not believe in God because no compelling evidence of the proposition has been presented to him, no special reason is evident to prefer one religion or one sect over the other, and because the mysteries of the religion seem self-contradictory if not sinister; the second type does not believe in God because his deeds are evil and yearns for darkness, for he wants to riot, and to steal the goods of others, and to arrogate to himself unearned honors as an intellectually advanced and morally scrupulous person meanwhile indulging in various perversions and vices, falsehood, envy, backbiting, and fury. All atheists of the second type camouflage themselves atheists of the first type. Atheists of the first type tend to be Libertarians or Objectivists, and atheists of the second type tend to be Socialists. There are perhaps atheists who combine these two motivations in different proportions, but my unhappy experience tends to introduce me to folk who are wholly the one or wholly the other.
All this to one side, for the purposes of this essay, a religion is said to develop or mature when it satisfies it changes from satisfying fewer to satisfying more of these five ends or drives.
In religion, the common property is ritualism, that is, the ceremonies of supplication, purification, propitiation, thanksgiving, and sacrifice. As best we can tell, this property holds true in all races, nations, tribes, and bands of men, literate and illiterate, civilized and barbarian.
The most primitive stage of religion consists (so primitive that I doubt it exists in nature but must be achieved by a fall from a more developed stage) is witchcraft, which consists solely of rite or ritual meant to supplicate or conjure or compel the unseen world to achieve particular effects in this one. Even modern Wicca are above this level, and their rites are also for purification or thanksgiving, and have a rudimentary moral code, the belief that one’s evil return tenfold, and that one should harm none.
That the basic moral laws of the universe are objective, and can be perceived by any healthy conscience is both too obvious a point to argue here, and is futile to argue with those whose consciences, by accident or design, are blind or have been blinded. Instead, we need only give examples of the general observation that all creeds, philosophies, and religions, save only those notoriously and deliberately unhealthy, occult, or sick (as the practices of the Aztecs or Carthaginians, or the philosophy of Nietzsche or Marx) agree on all the basics. Even those who do not agree on the basics, do not agree only because they take one basic principle, and exaggerate it to grotesque proportions, so that it might be used to truncheon the other basic principles: as when the principle of sacrifice is exaggerated by the Aztecs, strength by Nietzsche, or charity to the poor by Marx.
C.S. Lewis provides a list of basic moral precepts perceived by men of all literate nations in his Appendix to THE ABOLITION OF MAN called ‘Illustrations of the Tao‘ of which I here quote only the opening few. For the rest, see http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition4.htm
‘I have not slain men.’ (Ancient Egyptian. From the Confession of the Righteous Soul, ‘Book of the Dead’, v. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics [= ERE], vol. v, p. 478)
‘Do not murder.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus 20:13)
‘Terrify not men or God will terrify thee.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Precepts of Ptahhetep. H. R. Hall, Ancient History of the Near East.)
‘In Nastrond I saw… murderers.’ (Old Norse. Volospá 38, 39) Nastrond is the Norse hell.
‘I have not brought misery upon my fellows. I have not made the beginning of every day laborious in the sight of him who worked for me.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Confession of the Righteous Soul. ERE v. 478)
‘I have not been grasping.’ (Ancient Egyptian. Ibid.)
‘Who meditates oppression, his dwelling is overturned.’ (Babylonian. Hymn to Samas. ERE v. 445)
‘He who is cruel and calumnious has the character of a cat.’ (Hindu. Laws of Manu. Janet, Histoire de la Science Politique, vol. i, p. 6)
‘Slander not.’ (Babylonian. Hymn to Samas. ERE v. 445)
‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’ (Ancient Jewish. Exodus 20:16)
‘Utter not a word by which anyone could be wounded.’ (Hindu. Janet, p. 7)
‘Has he … driven an honest man from his family? broken up a well-cemented clan?’ (Babylonian. List of Sins from incantation tablets. ERE v. 446)
‘I have not caused hunger. I have not caused weeping.’ (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 478)
‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects of Confucius, trans. A. Waley, xv. 23; cf. xii. 2)
‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.’ (Ancient Jewish. Leviticus 19:17)
‘He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon goodness will dislike no one.’ (Ancient Chinese. Analects, iv. 4)
It is a maturation, and not a mere change, when ritualism is wedded to a moral precepts, and the spirits and gods are deduced to be the guardians and enforcers of moral righteousness, or even the authors.
Before this happens, religion is indistinguishable from witchcraft, a mere abortive technology for manipulating the unseen order of the cosmos as mechanics manipulates the seen order. It is a development in that the ritual character of the rite is still present, but the moral character increases a latent beauty, depth, and power. The moral precepts take on the character of taboos, the violation of which has a religious sanction. Not just changing the world, but cleansing the soul, become part of the more advanced version of the rite.
Shintoism is at this stage: it is as close to a merely ritualized ceremonial religion as it is possible for a religion to be. It concern is with ritual purity, mostly external. The public practices of the pre-Constantine Romans had this character. It was more a civic rite than a sacred one.
Again, it is a maturation and not a change when a moral code is made systematic, that is, when some sage or prophet or philosopher will take a group of moral precepts to which all non-sociopathic men agree and discover or derive the concept or rule behind them, as when the Buddha derives the Eightfold Path from the Four Noble Truths, or the prophets derive the Golden Rule from the Ten Commandments. At this point the religion becomes philosophical, or the philosophy becomes religious.
Neoplatonism reached this stage, particularly under the pen of Plotinus, as did Confucius and Lao Tzu and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
Whether one considers Stoicism, Taoism and Confucianism a philosophy as opposed to a religion is a matter of definitional debate too delicate to discuss here: if we call them philosophies, we must acknowledge certain metaphysical beliefs about the world-system, worship of the stars as divine or ancestors as divine, and so on, including disciplines meant to achieve inner peace, have something of the character and flavor of religion. If we call them religions, we must acknowledge them to be rather philosophical and elite religions, possessing no dogma innate to them.
It matters not for the purposes of this essay whether we call them religious philosophies or philosophical religions.
When the philosophical system becomes wedded to the rites and ceremonies of popular cult and clarifies its moral character, then and only then is the religion worthy of the name. We in the West are so familiar with this, that we automatically assume religion has both a moral and a philosophical character. To use a trivial example, when fantasy writers invent make-believe religions for their make-believe worlds, the overwhelming tendency is to ascribe to them ritual hierarchies as in a church, a set of beliefs about the world and the afterworld, and a moral code (for the purposes of drama, this moral code is usually absurd or insupportable). The point is not to be missed that all these things are developments out of more primitive models, indeed, that priests and prophets and sages come from different starting points and only combine their mental features into an organized world-view when they have evolved.
Hinduism involves a unification of moral conceptions with ceremonial. The moral conceptions in the Bhagavad Gita involve profundities as sublime as the Enchiridion of Epictetus or the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. The central core of the Hindu worldview is moral law: the Rta that establishes divine order and the Karma that establishes one’s position in the hierarchy of reincarnation. Rta is akin to the Maat or Me of the Egyptians or Babylonians, the Asha of the Zoroastrians, the Te and Toa of China, not to mention the Way, the Truth, and the Life of the Christians.
That the ‘Way’ spoken of (or not spoken of) by Lao Tzu and the ‘Way’ Christ claimed to be are both called Way, is not coincidence. A I said above, West and East are not so different: the characteristics of the Way of Lao Tzu include an ineffable and transcendent and imminent character, and also to be and to embody the moral order of the cosmos: it is humble and longsuffering, and strongest when it seems weakest, for it overcomes all opposition by yielding to it. These characteristics are embodied in Christ in a fashion no other character, real or imaginary, embodies. It is almost as if Christ is an incarnation of the divine and ineffable nature Lao Tzu contemplates.
Hinduism acknowledges a supreme source of Rta (the ‘Way’ or divine order) as Brahman the Creator-God, but with countless godheads and deities and spirits flowing from him, that to call the system monotheist or polytheist or pantheistic is a matter of semantics. It is halfway between the polytheism of the Olympian gods and the monotheistic Wise Lord of the Zoroastrians.
Comparing Hinduism with Greek polytheism we see the difference between developed and undeveloped in at least two areas:
First, the Greek conception was that Zeus arose to become king of the Gods through the deceit of his mother Rhea, and the castration of his father Chronos, and the overthrow of the Titans, who in turn arose from Chaos and Old Night. The sublime Hindu concept is that time is a wheel, and periodically Brahma slumbers and dreams the dream we call the world, which then decays, and dies, and Brahma wakes, and when he opens his serene and deathless eyes all the myriad worlds and myriad gods return to nothing. He sleeps again and creates again and it all happens again, eternally and without end. Zeus has as his titles that he is the upholder of law, the enforcer of oaths, and the power that visits curses and blessings on men, this role is awkwardly held in hands stained with paternal ichor.
Independent of the question of which, if either, is closer to the truth of things, the Hindu worldview identifies a central organizing principle to the cosmos which the Hellenic, at least in their myths, does not.
We can see ideas parallel to the Hindu in Pythagoras, or Plato’s Myth of Er, or in the eternal return or Ecpyrosis of the Stoics: but Hinduism has these various concepts, which are separated between philosophers and poets in the Helene, combined into a coherent whole in the Hindu.
Second, the Greek idea of divine punishment or reward after death was not well articulated or dogmatic, whereas the incarnation system of the Hindu is articulated to an almost mesmeric degree, with its graduated levels of heavens and hells circling Mount Sumaru. Again, this seems a matter of development rather than merely matter of difference.
Buddhism is a particular case, since, from all appearances, Buddhism was originally an attempt purely at moral and spiritual discipline like Stoicism, and having a particular scorn of metaphysical dogma. Let us recite the parable of the poisoned arrow from Majjhima-nikaya, Sutta 63:
The Buddha was sitting in the park when his disciple Malunkyaputta approached him. Malunkyaputta had recently retired from the world and he was concerned that so many things remained unexplained by the Buddha. Was the world eternal or not eternal? Was the soul different from the body? Did the enlightened exist after death or not? He thought, ‘If the Buddha does not explain these things to me, I will give up this training and return to worldly life’.
Thus, he approached the Buddha with this question, who replied:
“Suppose, Maunkyaputa, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: “I will not let the surgeon pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was long bow or crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed.
All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say: “I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether an awakened one ceases to exist after death or not,” that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.
Whether the view is held that the world is eternal or not, Malunkyaputta, there is still birth, old age, death, grief, suffering, sorrow and despair – and these can be destroyed in this life! I have not explained these other things because they are not useful, they are not conducive to tranquility and Nirvana. What I have explained is suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering. This is useful, leading to non-attachment, the absence of passion, perfect knowledge.”
Certain schools, as Zen Buddhism, follow a path of eschewing not merely metaphysical speculation, but the limitations of reasoning and self-awareness altogether in the attempt to achieve the serenity of the Enlightened One.
Others, as Tibetan Buddhism, have elaborate and well articulated philosophies concerned with reincarnation, the nature and parts of the soul, the cyclic system of the world, not to mention sacral hierarchy as complete and complex as anything devised by Levites or Brahmins or Archbishops and Metropolitans of the Christian Church.
As with Confucianism, we will leave to one side the question of whether Zen is a philosophy or a religion; the institutional Buddhism of India and Tibet,Indochina, China, and Japan we can call a religion without fear of contradiction.
Now, the question arises whether Buddhism is a development of Hinduism, rather than a heresy or decay, or merely an arbitrary change?
At least from an outsider’s point of view, it looks as if there is nothing in Hinduism not also present in Buddhism, whereas there is a central conception in Buddhism not present in Hinduism: Hinduism preaches that all lives and all worlds are as if on a wheel of eternal return, whereas Buddhism preaches a means to get off that wheel, to cease the cycle of reincarnation, to reach the abyss of nonbeing called Nirvana, and achieve not merely rest, but union with the divine.
The Hindu conception that heroes might be reincarnated as lesser gods promises less than this, and seems not to have drawn together, as Buddha does, some of the threads of thought present implicitly in writings such as the Gita. Buddhism, at least in some schools, preaches an Eschaton, when all beings will be enlightened and all life returns to the godhead.
In a similar vein, the relation of Christianity to Judaism certainly seems to be a development to the Christian (indeed, this is one of the central claims of Christianity), even if the faithful Jew calls it a heresy. The Old Testament, for example, seems unclear on the afterlife, so much so that faithful Sadducees dismissed the idea of the Resurrection as metaphorical, or absurd. The legalism of the Pharisees was something the Jewish scriptures themselves denounced, as where Psalm 51 says of God:
16For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Christianity also has a more articulated vision of the Four Last Things and of the End of the Age than Judaism: but I call this a development rather than a mere change, since the vision of Saint John builds upon and draws together the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel and other apocalyptic literature. Whether the claim is true or false, Christians claim Christ is the Messiah of the Jews, and that his earthly ministry fulfilled the prophecies concerning him, and moreso.
In sum, witchcraft addresses fewer of the ends of religion than paganism, and classical paganism fewer than the philosophical religions of antiquity or the East, and these fewer again than organized worldview of Hinduism and Judaism; and again, Buddhism addresses more than Hinduism, Christianity than Judaism. What then is the relation of Christianity to Buddhism, a faith more ancient, wider spread, and vaster in nearly every way?
The question turns on the basic differences between the claims of the two worldviews. Again, I am not arguing whether one is true or false, I am only arguing which addresses more completely the five ends I identified as the source of religious impulses in man.
The core argument can be stated briefly.The basic differences are the vision of the afterlife, reincarnation versus last judgment, and the vision of the union with the divine, whether negative, an infinite absence of pain, an abolition of nature, versus a positive vision of union, an infinite presence of joy, and a perfection of nature.
If all men fear pain, suffering and death, and they all perceive (if it is true) or imagine (if it is not true) that there is a life after this one and an unseen world governing the seen world, the perception or imagination of reincarnation as preached by Pythagoreans and Hindus is a less developed concept than the reincarnation as preached by Buddhists, and the transcendence of all earthly suffering as taught by Neoplatonism and Buddhism, on the grounds that the latter satisfies more of the five ends of the spiritual impulse in man than the former.
In other words, endless reincarnation which leads nowhere but to the destruction and recreation of the world for mind-numbingly countless eons sooths the fear of death, since if we all reincarnate none of us really die or pass into nonbeing, but it make no promise of the end of pain. As the bumper sticker says, “Life is a bitch, and then you die.” A Brahmin wag might add: “Again, and again, and again.”
I submit that the belief in reincarnation, whether true or false, is more primitive than a belief in a Last Judgment, on that grounds that reincarnation is merely one life of pain after another. Not even the gods are free from disquiet.
The atheist can say that all men have an unrealistic craving to escape death; the theist can say that the divine subtly informs all men that this material life is not and cannot be all there is to existence. Whichever the reason, in either case the simplest and first idea that must appear to all men, even among the most primitive, is that the dead continue their existence: it is a natural belief to say that this existence is much like ours, or even that it is ours. Natural, but a little unimaginative. Simple ancestor worship has something of this idea implied in it. The Hindu concept of Karma, that the suffering or pleasure of the next life depends on merit earned in this, ties in the moral conception that is more advanced, but the question of the escape from pain and suffering is not addressed even if the question of the fear of death drops out of the equation.
Belief in a Last Judgment and a world-eschaton is more advanced because the ends satisfied or addressed by the belief in reincarnation are more complete.
Since the Hindu wheel of life is never-ending, it is meaningless. Yes, your great acts of heroism may have you reincarnated as a lesser god this go-round, but when you are torn to bits by the demon-king Ravana of Lanka, you might be reincarnated next as a titan, or a naga, or a peasant, or a dog. If you are a bad dog, you will be reincarnated as a hungry ghost or demonic spirit. Then you might work your way through a thousand lifetime back to godhood. And over and over again. After the ten trillionth repetition, it would be meaningless. If you cannot remember your former lives, and do not know for what acts you are being rewarded or punished, it is meaningless now.
The vision of Buddha amends and, indeed, improves this, by promising an escape from the wheel of reincarnation. The more philosophical schools of Buddhism promise only that a detachment akin to Stoic ‘ataraxia’ or serenity will enable a man to suffer endless reincarnations without pain; the more mystical schools speak of a ‘Pure Land’ in the West, or a windless and formless heaven three or four levels above the highest heaven, where pain is extinguished because selfhood is extinguished, and thought and non-thought become one, and all is at rest in Nirvana.
The final judgment is successive, over many lives, and the eschaton is remote, but eventually the wheel of suffering will be escaped by all living souls, and the illusion of the world, Maya, will be gone.
I submit that Buddhism is more mature a conception than Shinto, or Taoism, or Confucianism, which are either ritualized religions or philosophical religions, vague on the afterlife, fulfilling fewer of the end of religious sentiment than Buddhism. I suggest the prevalence of Buddhism in the East is a tacit recognition among Oriental peoples that this is so, in the same way I suggestion the peaceful and rapid spread of Christianity in the classical world was recognition of its maturity above the simpler and less coherent and less satisfying pagan beliefs.
I suggest, however, that Buddhism is ultimately negative, indistinguishable from despair on a metaphysical level. It satisfies four of the ends of religion but the fifth, the desire for transcendence, unity with God and infinite joy and peace, it addresses more imperfectly than the Christian idea.
Peace is promised in Nirvana, but the unity and transcendence of self is promised at the expense of the annihilation of selfhood, as a drop of water is quenched in the ocean. Bliss this might be, but not joy.
Independent of the truth or falsehood of the claim, we are here only examining the sophistication of the claim being made, and whether one incorporates the other. I submit that there is nothing in Nirvana which is not also in Heaven, that is, the peace that surpasseth understanding; but Nirvana requires the extinction of selfhood and self, and Heaven promises the apotheosis and glorification of the self. The Buddhist conception is that creation is a mistake that creates pain and suffering, and that by renunciation the mistake can be nullified, and all suffering for all beings ended. The Christian conception likewise promises the end of all suffering, and that all tears will be wiped away, but identifies the primordial catastrophe of the Fall of Man is the only mistake to be rectified. The Platonic hatred of the physical body which is so prominent in Buddhism and similar worldviews is muted or absent in Christianity: instead of a void of Nirvana, the faithful Christian is promised a new heaven and a new earth, cleaned of sin and stain.
Buddhism is serenity and painlessness. Christianity is serenity and joy and the embrace of love by the divine being who himself is love, and who cherishes rather than abolishes your unique and infinitely precious personality.
Again, I am not arguing whether one view or the other is true or false. I am saying that the devout Buddhist can say the promises of Christ are extravagant, or unrealistic, or misleading, or self-indulgent, but he cannot say that they are merely different from the promises of Buddha, and cannot say they are merely an undeveloped form.
Consider this: after eons of meditation and reincarnation, your soul achieves enlightenment, and need never again suffer reincarnation. You drift away from the dark shores of life in the material world into a vastness of peace. But suppose that while afloat in the featureless ocean of serenity of Nirvana you caught sight of a further shore, a shining and pure land whose rivers run with the waters of life, and whose trees heal all sorrows, a paradise where there is no suffering, but there is also joy ineffable, would you not land? There is no motive in the Buddhist philosophy which would urge the soul to stay in the sea of bliss and not to come to shore in paradise.
Then consider the opposite case: Buddha, hearing the lamentations of the saints for the folly of Earth, emerges from his lotus and travels to the New Jerusalem, where he finds the Virgin Mary and her son, the Lamb of God. The Enlightened One tells the two that by renunciation of all desires, the swords that pierce her heart will no longer trouble her, and the five wounds of His passion may be sponged away. According to Christian theology, the suffering of Christ was necessary for the salvation of the world. Enthroned in paradise with his saints and angels, neither Christ nor his virgin Mother has any need for the wisdom of the Buddha, since they do not suffer the problem of dukkha, suffering. And if the offer had been made in the eternity before creation, the blood and tears shed by Christ for our salvation would have produced a world condemned to wrath, and a Messiah of serene indifference.
To be sure, there are, in Buddhist lore, said to be spirits so enlightened and filled with such compassion that they vow to return to Earth from happier realms lower than their final rest in Nirvana, in order to teach and instruct mankind. This seems to the Christian eye to be a type or shadow of the Christ, an imperfect image of what He perfectly accomplished, not just to teach, but also to save.
But even to any man’s eye, the conception of unity with the divine in the negative sense of self-annihilation and the annihilation of the world is lesser than and included in the conception of unity with the divine through the annihilation of sin and the restoration of the world, the making of all creation anew.
The Buddha could enter New Jerusalem if indeed he is without sin, and he has no reason not to, since the pleasures there are not snares, not illusions; contrariwise, for the Messiah, while he could enter Nirvana, were He willing to remain in the motionless bliss of God before the act of creation, He will not, for He is too full of a superabundance of love to do so.
Buddha cannot enlighten Christ, but Christ can save Buddha.