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1 April 2015

One of the more unusual books in my library is Michael Jordan's Encyclopedia of Gods: Over 2,500 Deities of the World. (No, not that Michael Jordan.) Now the book doesn't cover all the gods worshiped in the course of human history. For example, nowhere could I locate my favorite, Chrysosandaliaimopotichthonia, the blood-sucking goddess of the underworld who wears golden sandals. Apparently the encyclopedia is abridged -- just the top 2500 made it in!

There are way too many deities to cover -- just as our brief survey of religions can't offer more than a sampling of world faiths. Through the last four bulletins, hopefully we got a good glimpse of Muhammad and his god, Allah. Next week we'll look at Yahweh (the Lord revealed in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures). Today, however, we turn to the religions of the East.

The spectrum of belief

The plurality of human beings is nominally Christian. Sadly, only a minority of these are walking on the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14), as insiders and outsiders alike agree. To illustrate, the latest statistics show that only 15% of the residents of the United States attend church in an average week, although the vast majority self-report as Christian.

Christianity falls into several major groupings: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal. Each comprises hundreds of millions of members -- yet so do several of the larger world faiths. 

Muslims constitute nearly one in four persons alive today; Hindus, one in five; and Buddhists, one in 14. Since these last two groups combined take in more than 25% of human beings, that's where we'll focus in this bulletin.

Note that although secular or state atheism isn't an organized religion, it's still significant: one in 10 persons. Further, many religious persons are "practical atheists." That is, despite the trappings of religion, they live as though there were no God (Titus 1:16; Psalm 14:1). In the near future we will launch a practical series on how to respond to atheists -- the secular variety.

East meets West

Scholars of religion distinguish eastern and western religions. Yet "east" is a relative term: east of what? The phrase is eurocentric (east of London, Paris, or Berlin). Originally, Near East = Israel, Jordan, Lebanon... Far East = Japan, Korea, China... Middle East should be India, Pakistan, Afghanistan -- yet today "Middle" East usually refers to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia...

To add to the muddle, every major world religion was founded in Asia, so all are eastern (oriental), not western (occidental). Israel (Judaism and Christianity) and Arabia (Islam) are in Southwest Asia. Yet academics typically consider Europe western. Now that that's been clarified (or not), what are the differences between eastern and western religions?

In the east, there are multiple deities. Gods and goddesses are typically more human than holy, engaging in selfish, violent, or sexual behavior. Like us, they too are trapped in the cycle of reincarnation (Hinduism and popular Buddhism). Western religions acknowledge one god.

In the east, since there's no hard distinction between deity and nature, everything is "divine." Mother earth is both alive and divine (as in the blockbuster movie Avatar). True, we may partake in God's own nature, yet this is at his invitation, and requires holy living according to his word (2 Peter 1:3-1, 3:14-18). Yet we are not God.

In the east, one seeks truth within. In the west, truth lies without. Humans aren't inherently good, or even neutral; we are sinful. One (east) looks inward for subjective truth; the other (west) reaches out for objective truth.

In the east, it is thought that we err when we fail to realize our divinity. "The secret," according to Australia's Rhonda Byrne: "I am god!" Another consequence of subjective truth is that all religions are relativized. Thus in The Life of Pi, Piscine Molitor is brought up Hindu, comes to God through Christ, and learns to worship through Islam.

Since we are divine, yet don't know it, our underlying problem is ignorance -- not sin. Thus repentance has little place in the eastern faiths. The way of deliverance lies in knowledge, not repentance. But biblical enlightenment is primarily moral, not intellectual (John 3:19-21).

In Eastern religions, scriptures aren't so important. They aren't the touchstone by which everything else is to be evaluated. Not to say the east is without them; the Hindus have over 100,000 pages of scripture, while the Buddhist sacred writings run to 200,000 pages -- 200 times the length of the Bible! 

In eastern religions, reason interferes with spiritual progress. So it is with meditation. Whereas we should fill our minds with the word of God (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:16), in effect the eastern monks empty theirs. In the west, reason is central to knowing God's thoughts. To many eastern and New Age practitioners, like Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), sophisticated talk doesn't need to be coherent. Contradiction is embraced, even when the result is nonsense!

In the east, time is cyclical, not linear. This life is not particularly special, just one segment in a recurring series. Hence the doctrine of reincarnation, where one has, in effect, multiple chances at salvation.

A Scandinavian friend of mine has produced a great video presentation on Reincarnation, if you'd like to understand how this squares with Christianity. I too have produced a podcast on the subject.

In Hinduism, the goal is to be reborn at a higher level, and one day to escape the unceasing cycles of reincarnation. Then one's liberated soul becomes one with the "world soul," like a drop of water returning to the sea. All will be one.

In classical Buddhism, in contrast, the goal is to realize that one has no soul -- no individual existence at all. If Hinduism has all being one, Buddhism has all being nothing. In neither case will there be a personal relationship with God -- or with anybody else, for that matter. You can't get much farther from biblical religion than these scenarios!

The Cross
Since the gods don't care about us, and our fundamental problem isn't sin, eastern religions have no place for the Cross. Christianity alone grasps that the one God became flesh, bore our sins, and provided redemption. I have discussed this fact with several priests, monks, gurus, rabbis, imams. None can offer anything approaching the Cross of Christ! No incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection -- and mankind is "without hope and without God" (Ephesians 2:12).

Western religions 
  • Judaism -- Israel, monotheistic
  • Zoroastrianism -- Persia, dualistic: God and the Devil are equally powerful.
  • Christianity -- Israel, monotheistic 
  • Islam -- Arabia, monotheistic, drawing heavily on Judaism and Christianity
Eastern religions (especially Indian)
  • Hinduism -- India; common wherever Indians have migrated
  • Buddhism -- India; spread throughout Asia (died out in India)
  • Jainism -- India; originating (like Buddhism) in Hinduism
  • Sikhism -- India; a sort of blend of Hinduism and Islam
  • Taoism -- China
  • Confucianism -- China
  • Shinto -- Japan
  • Baha'i -- Persia (Iran)
You can learn more about these faiths by perusing the scriptures of the eastern religions. Or listen to some of the dozen (short) world religions podcasts.

Superstitions from the East?

"... They are full of superstitions from the East..." (Isaiah 2:6)

Some eastern traditions exhibit exemplary self-control. Disciplined bodies and -- who doesn't want that? Further, some of the most respectful persons I've ever met have been Buddhist monks. Does the Dalai Lama maybe possess the Spirit of Christ? Maybe we're over-analyzing, or just being "judgmental" (please see the bulletins on judging, 11 February and 18 February). Is one's choice of faith really a big deal?

Actually, it is. We've already considered a number of the logical, moral, and theological problems with the eastern faith traditions (previous section). Still, many in the West are drawn to the East. Why is this?

The notion that we are gods is a mirage -- a lie promoted by the enemy ever since Eden (Genesis 3:1-5). Yet it's an attractive lie. It flatters the ego. Yet reality doesn't simply adapt to meet the whims of the enlightened individual, nor does it guide us along our way (as though the world had a soul or were intelligent). This naive view continues to promote itself in New Age fiction, such as The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist.

Many westerners are disillusioned with church. Eastern superstitions offer an alternative. They may make us feel good, or provide elite knowledge. The "reality" they proclaim may feel more substantial than the anemic spirituality of so-called Christianity. However, the substance (reality) is found in Christ (Colossians 2:18)!

Eastern religions, including the New Age Movement, don't come with a warning label. Yet the mistaken belief that truth is flexible sets us up for failure. Seeking the truth "within" renders us susceptible to narcissism, as well as mind-altering drugs (think the groovy '60s), alcoholism (a way of life for many in the west), or irresponsible escape from reality in virtual worlds (think high tech). Yet the true God calls us to live in the real world.

If the superstitions from the East were correct, or even coherent, then who would Jesus be?
  • A bigot who saw black-and-white, although reality is completely gray.
  • One unable to give his life for our salvation.
  • A guru at best, a fraud at worst -- and certainly not divine in any unique way.
On guard!
Sometimes Christians buy into New Age novels or New Age-leaning films, failing to think biblically (Romans 12:1-2). A few examples (click the links for critique): Let's not be taken in by "superstition from the east." God's people were susceptible during the days of Isaiah. We should be on our guard.

Next week we shift from India (the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism) westward, to Israel. As we shall see, biblical Judaism is radically different from the eastern religions. It reveals the true God (there's only one -- not 2500!). Judaism provides the bedrock foundation for the way of Jesus Christ.
On the road...
This weekend I'll be heading to my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. It's primarily a fellowship visit, though I'll also be speaking on biblical leadership. Thanks for your prayers and support.

In Him,
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