In 2001, during my journey out of Christendom, I attended a 10 day silent Buddhist meditation retreat in the California hills, which focused on a certain simple type of silent meditation called Vipassana. I published my reflections on it back then, and you can see my somewhat traumatized post-Christian experiences.
I returned to Christian faith not long after that, but of course, I returned a much different person, with a lot more appreciation for the wisdom of Buddhism, yoga, and to a lesser extent, A Course in Miracles. Now 15 years since that experience, I can see how it forged my person, but I don’t talk about it much now – until my daughter of 10 asked me to explain the benefits of meditation.
As a Christian pastor, I have to first couch my response in a context, because if I commend Buddhism or yoga or even martial arts, many assume I am somehow admitting that Christianity has a lack, or that I am playing both sides of the fence.
In this post, I want to create a framework in which Christians can (and should) learn from other faith traditions, as well as how to protect themselves from any risks associated with delving into a non-Christian worldview, not to mention any spiritual forces that may lurk there. But be warned! I am not the type who sees demons under every bush, nor will I discourage seekers from exploring most world views.
I believe that there is more danger in having a superficial faith out of lack of having fully explored reality than there is in getting ‘bewitched’ by lying spirits or other world views. For someone ‘inoculated’ with an understanding of true Christianity, all other world views, though they may offer some substantial goods, will show themselves to lack the fullness of Christianity. All world views have some weak points, but in my experience, if you know the truth, the counterfeits are obvious, and you are less likely to be fooled.
But I am getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s look at why and how we ought to explore other religions. Then we will move on to Buddhist meditation, and follow up with a brief review of why other religions fail in comparison to Christ.
My awakening to spiritual truth outside of Christianity
I grew up in an agnostic scientistic home, and generally learned to despise religion. However, drug use and life’s difficulties led me to seek out truth beyond empiricism, and during my senior year in college, I converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, though I had a genuine regenerative Christian experience, the group I was part of was narrow and controlling, and I learned to fear involvement with other spiritual influences, including other Christian organizations, secular (and Christian) psychology, and certainly other religious traditions, which were all categorized under Paul’s admonition that other religions serve demons:
What am I trying to say? Am I saying that food offered to idols has some significance, or that idols are real gods? No, not at all. I am saying that these sacrifices are offered to demons, not to God. And I don’t want you to participate with demons. You cannot drink from the cup of the Lord and from the cup of demons, too. You cannot eat at the Lord’s Table and at the table of demons, too. ~ 1 Corinthians 10:19-21
Beyond even this, I was taught that the reason that other religions contain truth is that Satan’s main ploy is to use truth to deceive others away from Christ:
Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. ~ 2 Corinthians 11:14
Even more, beyond spiritual deception, there was just plain old sophistry:
Be careful not to let anyone rob you of this faith through a shallow and misleading philosophy. Such a person follows human traditions and the world’s way of doing things rather than following Christ. ~ Colossians 2:8 (GW)
The idea that no spiritual truth existing outside of one’s own tradition is not only arrogant, it’s obviously untrue. In addition, if we associate the character virtues such as kindness, patience, or honesty only with our own tradition, we will soon meet people outside of our tradition that embody such characteristics, and wonder how they could attain such real qualities without our God.
This is exactly part of what awoke me from the spell of my narrow faith – I saw Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh or relatively noble men like Ghandi who defied my ‘only Christians can be truly virtuous’ rubric.
Incorrect ways to integrate disparate spiritual teachings
Are there ways one could harmonize the problem of spiritual truths among many traditions that in many other ways flatly disagree with one another? For example, how do we reconcile the shared truth of ‘sowing and reaping’ matching ‘karma’ on one hand, while these same religions paint very different views of the life to come? How is it that Hindus have the physical practice of yoga the superbly integrated into their spiritual practice, while Christianity has none beyond ‘praise aerobics’ or Christian martial arts (and is even THAT a contradiction?)
- All religions are true and basically teach the same thing – while all religions may be aiming at the same thing (and they really don’t), this simplistic approach violates logic, the law of non-contradiction. Opposing ideas can not both be true.
- All religions are false – if two systems disagree, they could both be false. But what if we have determined that some of what each teaches IS true, and not in disagreement?
- All religions are partly true – this claim itself is partly assumed in my argument -that most enduring traditions share some enduring truths. But does this mean that we are doomed to have to piece together our own faith from the many impure streams of tradition we have, with no primary source that can be fully relied upon?
Correctly distinguishing types of spiritual truth
My friends who have philosphy PhDs will probably alert me to the fact that I am recapitulating some rubric that some genius has laid out more properly, but here are the major principles for understanding the differences between religions, and how to address their shared truths.
Revealed v. empirical truths
What I noticed about the truths common to many religions is that they were of a certain sort – a non-sectarian sort that we might just call ‘wisdom’ – that is, truths about existence that anyone could discover through observation and experimentation – that is, empirical truths. Metaphysical laws like ‘sowing and reaping’ (karma) or saving for the future or not holding to our desires too tightly do not need any special revelation to find. And so all ‘wisdom traditions’ are going to have some variation on these themes.
But some metaphysical claims are NOT directly verifiable – what happens after we die? What is God like? Where were we before we came to earth? What is wrong with the earth? What is the solution to death, suffering, and injustice? These questions find part or all of their answer in speculation – unless they are divinely revealed. And it is precisely in THIS arena that religions disagree.
So one could reconcile differences among religions by learning all one can from them regarding empirical truths, but then accept one (or none) of them as credible on revealed truths – because when one says we die once and then the judgement, while the other says we are reincarnated for multiple lifetimes to work off our bad karma, they just can’t both be right.
Who is trustworthy with regard to revealed truth?
Many anti-theists (and theists) misunderstand faith as ‘believing without evidence,’ but this is really false faith based on appeals to authority, and this is not how Christian faith operates. Christianity is based on reasoned and researched faith – that is, we look for an authority who has proven themselves trustworthy, and then tentatively but surely take their word for it until such time as we can confirm the truths we’ve been given. This was understood by Saint Anselm, who coined the phrase ‘faith seeking understanding.’
Christianity is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t just make metaphysical claims, it makes many historical claims which can be affirmed or contradicted by historical and archaeological research. As many have attested, the scriptures are full of verified historical claims (though by its very nature, historical evidence can be interpreted incorrectly to agree with OR disagree with Biblical claims).
But Christianity also presents purely metaphysical challenges to us – to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8). Many people find the Christian God compelling because of an initial experience, which is only later (hopefully) followed by intellectual scrutiny (see Are you a Christian because of your experiences, or because of logic?).
Real faith in my view is ‘reasoned trust in another source that you have confirmed is otherwise trustworthy.’
The way I apply this to my own faith tradition is this way:
Christianity, and the Bible, are entirely trustworthy in both empirical and revealed truth. However, Christianity does not contain the whole of empirical truths available, and I am free to find those wherever I can in nature and in other wisdom traditions.
This maintains both the primacy and trustworthiness of the Bible, while allowing for non-revealed truth to exist outside of Christianity.
There is a Biblical argument for some revealed truth outside of Christianity, as seen in the visit of the Zoroastrian Magi to Jesus after his birth (and the supposed gospel revealed in the zodiac 1, Paul and Jesus’ appeals to nature’s revelation of God (Matthew 6:26, Romans 1:20), and Paul’s use of Stoic philosophy (Acts 11:28).
However, these ‘lights’ are murky at best, and can not be understood properly without a Biblical framework and the Spirit of God explaining, hence the warning I listed above:
“Be careful not to let anyone rob you of this faith through a shallow and misleading philosophy. Such a person follows human traditions and the world’s way of doing things rather than following Christ.” ~ Colossians 2:8 (GW)
We can and should learn from other wisdom traditions. They have truths and techniques to offer us. We have the gospel to offer them. Let us engage in humility and wisdom in listening to others, in broadening our views, and in learning to discern how the truth revealed in the gospel is missing in the other traditions.
In Part 2, I will explore the differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and why they have valuable wisdom to share with one another.