Spirituality: Christian and Non-christian
April 2003 Bible Trail Conference for Youth of Singapore YFC
The West today is highly enamoured by Eastern spirituality. Thousands of Westerners are coming to the East in search of spiritual realities that they feel the West forsook in its quest for technological advancement. What we are seeing today is the culmination of a process that started in the West about 150 years ago. There was a new interest in studying the religions and cultures of what we today call the Third World. Earlier Christians had viewed these cultures as savage and backward. But as these Westerners began to study these cultures they began to see a richness they had not realised was there.
Bishop Stephen Neill, who was a famous British missionary to India, described it like this: “As these ‘treasures of darkness’ penetrated the consciousness of educated men and women, something like a gasp of astonishment arose. Surprise was followed by appreciation, and even admiration.” Neill goes on to say how the Hindu writings began to be compared with the Christian Scriptures. Pope John XXIII instituted the famous Vatican II Council of the Roman Catholic Church which further reflected on this issue. One of the official documents resulting from this Council is entitled Lumen Gentium, the light of the Gentiles and, while affirming a strong theology of mission, it also affirms the richness of other religious traditions.
Today as Christians meet people of other faiths, and see admirable features in these people, they wonder how they can square what they see with their belief in the uniqueness of Christianity. We will tackle this issue in three steps. First we will see what we can learn from Paul’s practice of quoting favourably from non-Christian authors. Then we will look at how we can account for what clearly seem to be truthful and noble aspects in other faiths. Then we will contrast Christian spirituality with non-Christian spirituality bearing in mind our belief in the uniqueness of Christ.
MEETING THEM AT THEIR HIGHEST
In his speech to the Athenians, Paul quoted with approval from one or possibly two non-Christian poets (Acts 17:28). This tells us something about his attitude to these faiths. The first thing we need to point out is that, even though Paul quoted two non-Christian philosophers, nowhere are we told that he accepted the whole religious system of their philosophies. Yet he saw “glimmerings of the truth” in these systems that could be used to buttress his case for Christianity. His audience was familiar with these writers and accepted them as their own teachers. In this case Paul saw that he could use something they had said in the process of developing his case for the Christian gospel. We, too, as F. F. Bruce points out, “may quote appropriate words from a well-known writer or speaker without committing ourselves to their total context or background of thought.”
By affirming what is good in the Greek philosophers, Paul gave us another important principle about the Christian’s attitude toward other faiths. In Stephen Neill’s words, “We must endeavour to meet them at their highest.” Neill contrasts this with the approach of the witness who cheaply scores points off the other faiths “by comparing the best he knows in his own faith with their weaknesses.” There are those who try to present a case for Christianity by appealing to the failures of non-Christians. Christianity is presented as the answer to the awful behaviour of non-Christians.
In 1983 there was an outbreak of violence in Sri Lanka in which many from the Buddhist majority had a hand. Some Christians were quick to use this as evidence for the bankruptcy of Buddhism. But as we began to get a clearer picture of what had happened, news began to emerge that Christians too had been involved in the violence. Their involvement was not as prominent as that of the Buddhists because the Christians are a small minority in Sri Lanka. Besides, if we use this line of argumentation, all the Buddhist has to do is to point to situations such as Nazi Germany. We may not identify the Nazis as Christians. But since they were church members, the non-Christians did. These so-called Christians definitely became instruments of wickedness.
The “savagery” of the non-Christian world was used in the past to motivate Christians to missionary involvement. Today the non-Christians are using the same argument to appeal for missionary involvement in the so-called Christian West. The Buddhists believe that the moral restraint of Buddhism is the answer to the immorality found in the West. The Hindus believe the devotion of Hinduism is the answer to the materialism found in the West. The Muslims believe that the brotherhood of Islam is the answer to the racial prejudice found in the West.
We do not argue for the validity of Christianity by pointing to the wickedness that other religions have caused. We argue for it by pointing to the ravages of sin. It is sin that has caused the miserable state of the human race and not primarily the religion of these sinners. Sin is found in Christian and non-Christian environments. Those born into a Christian background need to be saved from sin as much as those born into a non-Christian background.
All this shows how careful we must be about attacking other religions. We must show people how their faith is ineffective and will not save. Paul did this regarding idolatry in Athens. We too need to show the ineffectiveness of the ways people use in their quest for salvation, such as materialism, idolatry, other gods, and self-effort. But we also see that Paul did not regard his gospel preaching as a competitive debate that he must win by putting down his opposition by every possible means. Paul’s desire was to proclaim the truth. If there was truth to be found anywhere in these other faiths, he was not afraid to affirm it. But Paul showed, as he did in Athens, that the highest truths in these religions did not go far enough. Paul knew that the truth residing in other faiths would not bring eternal salvation. For this, Christ is the only way.
It is because we believe in the supremacy of Christ that we are not afraid to affirm what is good in other faiths. Christ is in a class by himself. The founders of the other religions were men who explored the meaning of the divine. Christ was divinity incarnate. He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He also said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We have come to the Father through Christ and tasted life and truth. We know that nothing in this world can compare with that. Our security in him takes away our defensiveness so that we are not afraid to affirm what is good in the followers of other ways.
But, because we know that Christ is the only way to salvation, we do all we can to bring those following other ways to Christ. We are not surprised to find that Paul proceeded to present a different gospel from that of the Greek philosophers he quoted. When Paul came to the resurrection of Christ he lost most of his audience. But Paul would not compromise truth in order to keep his hearers agreeing with him.
SOURCES OF TRUTH IN OTHER RELIGIONS
I have said that there are truths in other religions. This brings us to the question of the source of these truths. Can they be described as God’s revelation in the same way that the Bible is, as many Christians are trying to do today? The Scriptures teach that there are three sources of truth available to man apart from the Scriptures.
God’s Original Revelation. The first source is God’s original revelation to Adam, the first human. Paul said that from “one man he made every nation of men” (Acts 17:26; see also Romans 5:12-21). This implies that Adam was the father of the whole human race. The Scriptures teach that God had a warm personal relationship with Adam. This could only have been possible if God had revealed key truths about his nature to Adam.
Yet with the Fall, human nature was corrupted and untruths entered his mind. Paul wrote: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). So human religion deteriorated. Yet that original revelation given to Adam was not entirely lost by the human race. In humans there remained what has been called reminiscent knowledge. In this reminiscent knowledge there is found truth about God.
The idea of the deterioration or devolution of religion is not accepted today in many circles. Many people prefer to explain the history of religions in terms of evolution rather than devolution. The evolutionary theory claims that religion is the attempt of humans to answer certain questions and challenges they face. From the earliest times humans needed to explain how the world, with all its complexity, came into being. People felt insecure because of their inability to control nature, so they began to look for someone bigger than themselves to whom they could go for protection and blessing. They needed to attribute the misfortunes they faced to some source. Gradually humanity “created” ghosts, spirits, demons, and gods to answer its questions. There were gods for different functions and protecting different localities. So polytheism emerged.
As societies advanced, the evolutionary theory holds, humans realised that having a supreme ruler for a large area was politically more effective than having many local chiefs. So monarchies emerged. This idea of the supreme ruler was extended to the religious sphere, yielding the belief in a supreme god. The climax of this process was monotheism, the belief in one supreme god.
The Bible affirms the very opposite of the evolutionary view. The Bible states that the first man had a monotheistic belief in the supreme God that was corrupted after the Fall, resulting in polytheism and animism (spirit worship). Carl F. H. Henry regards the evolutionary explanation of religious history as typical of the mood of this age. He says, “In every age philosophers have sought some one explanatory principle by which to encompass and explain all things.” He points out that “in modern times that principles has been the category of evolution.” So the development of religion is also explained in terms of evolution.
Anthropological studies carried out in the last century however have given convincing evidence for the biblical view, which sees the present religious diversity in terms of the deterioration of an original revelation. Don Richardson has made these insights from anthropology available from a non-technical viewpoint in his book Eternity in Their Hearts. He shows how the idea of a supreme, good God was discovered in thousands of so-called primitive cultures that have been studied in this century.
Richardson relates how these discoveries were embarrassing to many anthropologists because they went against current opinions about the history of religions. They had expected “unadvanced” thoughts about the divine. The so-called advanced concept of a supreme God was a most unexpected discovery because these primitive cultures were not considered to have evolved to the point of developing such an idea. Richardson reports that “probably 90 percent or more of the folk religions of this planet contain clear acknowledgement of the existence of one Supreme God.”
When missionaries go out and proclaim the gospel to these cultures, their hearers often automatically identify the Christian God with their supreme God, a fact that has simplified the Bible translator’s task. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin notes that “in almost all cases where the Bible has been translated into languages of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the New Testament word Theos [Greek for ‘God’] has been rendered by the name given by the non-Christian peoples to the One whom they worship as Supreme Being.” Newbigin cites the great Bible translations consultant, Eugene Nida, who has pointed out that where translators tried to evade the issue by simply transliterating the Greek or Hebrew word, the converts would explain this foreign word in the text of their Bibles by using the indigenous name for God.
Here then is the first source of truth in non-Christian systems—God’s original revelation. Though this revelation has been corrupted because of sin, some truth still remains, and that truth may be affirmed and used as a stepping-stone in communicating the gospel.
The Image of God in Humanity. The second source of truth available, apart from the Scriptures, is in the very nature of the human being. We are religious beings. The Dutch theologian, J. H. Bavinck, points out that “this is not to say that every man has this religious trait to the same extent.” Some are more religious than others are, but if we look at the human race as a whole, we must agree with Bavinck that “it cannot be denied that religiousness is proper to man.” Bavinck says, “Even when a man turns his back upon the religious traditions in which he has been brought up and calls himself an atheist, he still remains in the grasp of his religious predisposition. He can never wholly rid himself of it.”
Religions such as Buddhism deny the necessity of relating to any supernatural being. But most of the adherents of such religions cannot generally be made to stick to a rigid non-theism. Mahayana Buddhism is the largest branch of Buddhism. It is practised in countries such as Japan, China, Korea, and Tibet. The Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhists worship the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas who are being who are said to have delayed becoming Buddhas and going to Nirvana so that they can serve others. They address their prayers to them as they would to gods.
Theravada (the doctrine of the elders) Buddhism is practised in countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. It prides itself in being closer to the teachings of the Buddha and the early Buddhist (Pali) scriptures. Yet Buddhists belonging to this branch have also included the divine factor into the practice of their religion. Many Buddhists of Sri Lanka have literally deified the Buddha, a practice he would have opposed. These Buddhists often talk about the gods who protect them and often resort to assistance from the gods or spirits in times of trouble.
Communism sought to eradicate religion with its strong rationalistic and materialistic emphases. But prior to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and even today religion was thriving in these countries in spite of discrimination and persecution that religious adherents had to face. The phenomenal growth of the church in Communist China is one of the most fascinating stories in religious history. When I was a student in the West in the mid-1970s people were talking a lot about secular humanism. Now there is little talk about that. The post-modern era has dawned, and its reaction against the ultra-rationalism of the modern era has resulted in religion and spirituality coming back into popularity. Unfortunately many have turned to New Age Pantheism (everything is divine) to give expression to their religious bent.
The incurable religiosity of the human race is a vestige of the image of God in humanity (see Genesis 1:26-27). This image was tarnished as a result of the Fall so that no part of us has escaped the taint and pollution of sin. But all humans still have some of the God-implanted characteristics and abilities originally invested in them. These traits manifest themselves in ways that are both good and bad, which is why humans thirst after the divine. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” That refers to the vestige of the image of God. But it goes on to say that men “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” That is a result of the fall. This knowledge that humans have about God because of their natural inclination toward the religious has been called intuitional knowledge of God by theologians.
So we find that humans can think reasonably. They have a sense of the reality of the divine that expresses itself in religiousness. They have a sense of truth, of beauty, and of goodness. They have the potential for creativity. They have a sense of .the eternal, which makes them want to transcend their limits of time and space. These are qualities with the potential of being used in the service of truth for the benefit of humanity. But they may also be used in ways that are dangerous to man. So we find accomplished art, literature, and music that are good and we also find accomplished art, literature, and music that are evil. We have beautiful ancient buildings regarded as wonders of the world that were built using slaves in a most inhuman way.
A Christian, therefore, may enjoy the music of the Indian musician Ravi Shankar or be challenged by the heroism of Mahatma Gandhi. Both these people are/were Hindus. We may learn from the literature of Greece. We could say that, because these are expressions of the image of God in humanity, the good features in these creations are derived in some sense from God. But we also know that those who created them do not know God, and this makes us unwilling to endorse the system of life to which they subscribe. As a youth I used to follow Hindu processions for hours, thrilled by the music I heard, but deeply troubled by what caused the musicians to play what they played.
The Plan of the Universe. A third source of knowledge, outside the revelation of God in the Scriptures, is the plan of the universe. Looking at the universe, man is able to make inferences about the One who created it. We may call this the inferential knowledge of God. The Psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Paul explained this knowledge of God more clearly: “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom. 1:19-20).
In his speeches Lystra and Athens, Paul said that the plan of creation is a testimony to God, creating in man a desire to know more about him (Acts 14:17; 17:26, 27). By observing the grandeur of creation, people may be led to acknowledge the greatness of the Creator. By observing the law of nature, people may arrive at a conviction about the importance of order for a secure life. This in turn will become a base for formulating the laws of a given society.
GENERAL REVELATION AND SPECIAL REVELATION
The three sources of truth outside the Bible are reminiscent knowledge, based on the original revelation of God; intuitional knowledge, which comes by the use of our natural instincts; and inferential knowledge, which comes by observing creation. In theology, this type of knowledge is described under the heading of general revelation. It is truth, derived from God and available to all people. It is distinguished from special revelation, which is truth communicated by God infallibly, in the form of language. This truth is recorded in the Bible. Whereas general revelation gives hints about the nature of reality, special revelation is a clear guide to all that is needed for salvation and for authentic living.
Psalm 19 describes those two sources of truth. Verses 1-6 describe general revelation. This revelation is not made through “speech or language” (v. 3). But “Their voice goes out into all the earth” (v. 4). Verses 7-11 describe special revelation. This description begins with the words, “The law of the Lord is perfect” (v. 7). It goes on to describe this revelation as “trustworthy” (v. 7), “right,” “radiant” (v. 8), “pure” and “altogether righteous” (v. 9). This passage also describes the amazingly complete influence it exerts on believers. We affirm that only the Bible can exert such infallible authority upon us. No other writing, Christian or non-Christian, is revelation in the sense that the Bible is.
Some recent works on the Christian attitude to other faiths have disputed the Christian claim to a unique revelation. Sri Lankan writer, Wesley Ariarajah says, “What we have in the Bible are not attempts to project objective truths, but a struggle to understand, to celebrate, to witness, and to relate.” To him the Bible is an expression of the faith and experiences of its writers. This is the typical approach to truth of religious pluralists, and we are going to encounter this more and more in the days to come. Ariarajah says that we must not make claims that the Bible presents “absolute and objective” truths based on our belief that it is a unique revelation given by God. Besides, he says, “most religions like Islam and Hinduism, are also based on the concept of revelation, and throughout history different persons have claimed to have various revelations from God.” It is not within the scope of this talk to defend our belief that the Scriptures are a unique revelation from God, containing objective and absolute truth. This has been adequately done in numerous books on revelation that have appeared recently.
CHRISTIAN AND NON-CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY
The Resurgence of Spirituality. Having looked at the phenomenon of non-Christian religiousness and its sources, we are now in a position to come specifically to the issue of spirituality. All over the world we are seeing a resurgence of interest in spirituality. The East has always been very high on spirituality, with an important place given to the spiritual disciplines in each of the Eastern religions. At the start of this talk we said how from about 150 years ago there was a study of other cultures and a discovery of riches in them which began a new trend of appreciating these cultures. This trend began as we said at the start of this talk with the study of other cultures and the discovery of riches in them. But this has become a particularly significant feature of Postmodern Western society since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Postmoderns are revolting against what they see as the tyranny of the rationalism of the modern era. They claim that owing to the preoccupation with objective facts the individual with his or her feelings and drives were neglected. One of the things neglected was the spiritual side of the human being.
As I said earlier, twenty years ago there was a lot of talk about secular humanism which generally ignored or denied the spiritual aspect of the human being. Now this has given way to an attitude to life which gives a higher place to the spiritual. But the spirituality that has attracted the West is generally closer to New Age and Eastern Spirituality than Christian spirituality. So we see people taking a lot of interest in astrology, in magic and the occult, in psychic and spiritual “counsellors” and in eastern meditation. Meditation and belief in reincarnation have become common place even in the West. Many new versions of old films and television serials like Star Trek, Robin Hood and Sindbad the Sailor give evidence of such spirituality. I found it quite amusing to see the Muslim Sindbad who calls God “Allah” involved in many magical activities which are generally scorned by Muslims.
Defective Evangelical Spirituality. Unfortunately it could be that many expressions of evangelical Christianity in the West may have been defective in the area of spirituality. In many Evangelical traditions conversion was defined as intellectual assent to the message of the cross. After conversion the emphasis was on obedience to Christ so that sanctification was equated with obedience. There was little emphasis on the work of the Spirit in sanctification. The teaching on the assurance of salvation was almost entirely an appeal to the rational—the Bible says those who believe are saved, therefore if you have believed you are saved. There is little mention of the experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit, the transformed life and the witness of the Spirit as means of assurance. Any display of emotion in religion, or what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections,” was viewed with suspicion. So to many postmoderns Christianity was an expression of the dry rationalism of modernism they were revolting against. Happily this situation has changed in both the Charismatic and the other wings of the Evangelical church where there is a resurgence of interest in spirituality.
But when some are rejecting Christianity and looking for spirituality elsewhere they are finding non-Christian spirituality very attractive. As they look at certain forms of non-Christian spirituality they wonder whether those forms are superior to Christian spirituality?
The Dangers of Identifying Christianity with One Culture. The first point to make in response to the above situation is that the discovery of riches in other faiths is coming alongside a discovery of riches in other cultures. Some cultures may have preserved good features in God’s original revelation, which got obliterated in the West, owing to its pragmatism or to some other cultural features.
I remember one summer in the mid-seventies when I was a student in USA. I was struggling with what women wore (or maybe I should say, didn’t wear!). I met an American Hare Krishna follower in an airport gracefully dressed in a sari. I found it so refreshing! As far as wholesome appearance was concerned, she was so much more attractive than many of the Christian women I met at that time. Then there are the strong family-ties, the close community life, and the commitment to the contemplative life that is, for example, found in Asia.
People made in the image of God, are made with the capacity for spiritual experience. And living in a world fashioned by God they could achieve significant heights of moral and spiritual understanding and experience, without a Christian influence. Of course, many of these emphases are found in the Bible, but they may have been neglected in some forms of Western Christianity.
Therefore our claim for the uniqueness of Christ is not a claim for the uniqueness of Western culture. Some thought like this in earlier times. They saw mission as Christianising the heathen. But to many of them, Christianising actually meant Westernising. The new appreciation of riches in non-western cultures forces us to stop identifying the gospel with western culture. It also forces us to ask where the church in the West has been deficient in her understanding of the whole counsel of God.
Biblical Spirituality: A Personal Relationship with God. We further point out that the Bible has a fully developed and deeply meaningful understanding of spirituality. Much of it is given in the Old Testament, which was the Bible of the early church. Therefore it did not need to be re-emphasised in the New Testament. Because many Christians do not assign sufficient significance to the Old Testament, they may have not fully grasped this emphasis. Essentially, biblical spirituality is founded upon a personal relationship with God who is both loving and holy. Deepening this relationship gives life’s most fulfilling experience. David said, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psa. 16:11). We believe that our relationship with God is most fulfilling because God is the Creator of human Spirituality and Jesus is God’s answer to human need. Jesus himself said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). We will now look at how the fact that God is both loving and holy influences biblical spirituality.
God is Loving. The heart of Christian spirituality is a love relationship with a personal God. This is very different to Eastern and New Age spirituality. The God of the Bible is separate from humanity, but has reached down to establish an interpersonal relationship with us—a relationship of love. New Age spirituality has a pantheistic understanding of God which understands everything as being God. God is not personal. You are God, and I am God. Our task is to become one with the divine. The official Hare Krishna magazine is entitled Back to Godhead. New Age analyst Theodore Roszak says that our goal is “to awaken the God who sleeps at the root of the human being.” Therefore these spiritualities have to do with experiences of the divine through spiritual disciplines. The aim is to be enlightened so that we may experience the oneness with the divine that actually forms our essential nature. We are not experiencing this oneness with the divine owing to the ignorance of our present way of living. So techniques are used to alter ordinary consciousness so that we can see true reality.
To many these spiritual disciplines are satisfying, because they give some fulfilment to the spiritual nature of humans. But they fall short of complete satisfaction. Humans are made to find fullest satisfaction through personal relationships of love. This is why love songs are so popular in music, which is the language of joy. The heart of Christian spirituality is just this—a love relationship with God.
Yet like in the marriage relationship, which is often used to describe our relationship with God, a personal relationship with God takes time to cultivate through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Many Christians are not doing this, and they are missing out on the beauty of Christian spirituality. The “one minute devotionals” that are available today in abundance are not helpful here, unless they become means by which an appetite for the spiritual life is kindled. One must soon graduate from them to lingering with God through the spiritual disciplines like prayer, praise, adoration, Bible reading, meditation and corporate worship. Christians who do not know the joys of lingering in the presence of God will be at a loss to know how to respond when people speak of serenity through New Age disciplines like Transcendental Meditation.
When those who have practised non-Christian spiritual disciplines come to Christ, they take to Christian spirituality with relish! Their skills in the art of the spiritual disciplines help them to cultivate a deeply satisfying spiritual life. The accountancy firm that does the annual audit of Youth for Christ sent a young man Satchithanandakumar, who was a devout Hindu, to check on our books. Someone in our office spoke to him about Christ and that led him to finally becoming a Christian. I had the privilege of meeting him weekly to help him in his spiritual growth. I found that he had cultivated a deep prayer life. Later, when he joined our staff, this prayer life became a key to his phenomenal success in leadership development. He prayed people through into leadership. If we were to ask him whether he would go back to Hinduism, he would decisively say, “Never!” The rewards of practising the Hindu spiritual disciplines could not be compared with the glory of a relationship with a loving God. But this background in the disciplines would have given him a “head start” in his spiritual pilgrimage as a Christian.
Sadhu Sundar Singh was a young Sikh in India who was skilled in Hindu and Sikh disciplines. But he was engaged in a quest for peace that was yet to be satisfied. He “attained a mastery of the Yoga technique and became oblivious of the external world for short spells.” Sundar Singh said that during these moments he experienced in some measure the peace and joy for which his soul craved. “But when he returned to consciousness, he was again plunged into the turmoil of unrest and discontent.” Others have told me of similar experiences. When Sundar Singh finally met Christ he became a “master” on the spiritual life. He also found that God establishes a relationship with him that does not end at the mountaintop, for God comes down to the valley with him. Sundar Singh once said, “Without Christ I was like a fish out of water. With Christ, I am in an ocean of love!”
Biblical Spirituality: God is Holy. Because God is holy, if we have a relationship with him, we too must become holy like him (1 Pet. 1:16). So Christian spirituality requires moral and ethical purity. The beauty of it is that just as justification is by grace through faith, so is sanctification by which we are made holy. On our own we do not have the strength to become holy, but as we repent of our sin and trust in him and obey him, he makes us holy. Therefore to many in the Protestant tradition the words spiritual and holy and saint are almost synonymous with moral and ethical purity. When we use the word saint we generally refer to a righteous and loving person, even though that is not its essential meaning. This is perhaps the great strength of Evangelical spirituality. Catholic and Orthodox spirituality emphasised the sacramental and mystic aspects of spirituality. Charismatic spirituality emphasised the power aspect of spirituality. But Evangelical spirituality emphasised the ethical and moral aspects of spirituality. There is truth in all three emphases.
There is no developed concept of a supreme God who is holy in pantheistic cultures. Therefore in pantheistic spirituality a concerted push for morality is often lacking. This is why despite the strong tradition of spirituality in Asia our countries are plagued by corruption today. The gods of Hinduism were morally neutral, and they are often seen to be doing things that we consider quite unholy. The emphasis in those spiritualities is not so much on holiness in the sense of moral purity, but on holiness in the sense of spiritual power—of power over the mind, over the body, over anxiety and circumstances. People go to astrologers and psychic readers to have some power over their circumstances. They do yogic exercises to have power over the mind and the body. We have seen that even in Christian circles when there is an emphasis on spiritual power, sometimes there is a tendency to neglect teaching on moral issues.
People from the West go to places like the Himalayan mountains in search of exotic spiritual experiences. They often have such experiences. But many of them are seen to behave in ways that are morally very impure, such as dabbling in drugs and promiscuous sex. Though there are exceptions, generally pantheistic spiritualities have not succeeded in producing just, morally upright and fair societies. Presently the societies in many countries in the West are fashioned according to a system of trust based on transcendent absolutes and of submission to a supreme God. Structures like the freedom of expression, democracy, and even the supermarket operate on these assumptions. I shudder to think what will happen as one by one these presuppositions are being jettisoned in the West and replaced by values derived from a pantheistic worldview.
In Christian spirituality we enter into the experience of a personal relationship with the holy God through humble recognition of our sinfulness and inability to help ourselves. We first bow down before the supreme God in repentance. Once we enter into a relationship with God, we submit to his lordship and become subject to his will for our personal lives. The pantheistic approach is quite opposite to this. We can see how this approach fits in with the postmodern mood with its quest for self-actualisation. You don’t need to bow down before a supreme God who is an objective reality outside of yourself. You are God! An influential spiritual teacher in America, Swami Mukthananda has said, “Kneel to your own self. Honour and worship your own being. God dwells within you as You!” That sounds much better to people seeking to rule their lives than the words, “Kneel in humble submission and repent for your sin before the almighty God.”
So we shouldn’t be surprised by the growth of pantheistic spirituality today. It fits in with the aspirations of people in both the East and the West. People want something spiritual to answer the heart-cry that things like atheism, secular humanism and Communism could not satisfy. Pantheism provided an answer without violating the quest for a life without submission to objective realities like a supreme God, a strict moral code and an infallible Bible.
Yet no one can find full satisfaction without solving the sin question in his or her life. An American Methodist preacher of an earlier generation, Henry Clay Morrison, is reported to have said, “God did not fix me up so that I couldn’t sin. He fixed me up so that I couldn’t sin and enjoy it.” According to the psalmists the law of the Lord is not a burden that enslaves us, it is a delight that gives life. The objective truth of the Word is not an obstacle to freedom. Jesus said that the truth will make us free (John 8:32-36). The context of that affirmation shows that the freedom Jesus spoke about had much to do with living a life freed from enslavement to sin.
And what can we say about liberation from our own past actions? The law of karma, with its belief in repeated incarnations is being presented today as an alternative to the Christian emphasis on sin and judgement, grace and justification. But can one completely negate all their bad karma by their own efforts accumulated through several lives? Many honest people who are committed to this scheme would admit that this is a long and dreary climb along a path that does not carry much hope of liberation at the end. Although the adherents of this path have the satisfaction of doing something to save themselves, they will not experience the freedom of knowing that their wrong actions are behind them eternally and forgotten. The Christian gospel, on the other hand, speaks of “having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Heb. 10:22) through the perfect and sufficient sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Without such freedom from a guilty conscience there can be no permanently fulfilling experience of spirituality.
An Opportunity to the Church. So while the new interest in spirituality is a challenge to the church, it is also a great opportunity. Christian spirituality is one of the key aspects of the uniqueness of Christ. Therefore it could figure prominently in our evangelism. Sooner or later people will realise that the serenity which New Age and Eastern spiritualities provide does not fully satisfy. Though these have been described as holistic, only the Creator of human life can give humans a truly holistic spirituality. It is he who created every aspect of the human make-up and therefore only he could satisfy the yearnings of the whole human soul. This is why Jesus, who was God’s answer to the human dilemma, said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
The above discussion would have shown us that the current interest in spirituality could be a stepping stone in the evangelisation of postmoderns and people of other faiths. Worship, the supreme expression of Christian spirituality, could therefore be an important means to evangelism today. We have found this to be so in our evangelism among youth. Vibrant Christian worship demonstrates to people that what they are yearning for is found in the Christian gospel.
So the current interest in spirituality is a challenge to the church to get its act together. We have the answer that the world is looking for. But have we ourselves experienced it? Do we know the glory of intimacy with the loving and holy God who is supreme above creation? Has this relationship transformed us into morally pure people? If we can answer these questions in the affirmative, we would truly be light to the darkness of the world in this era of so much moral and religious confusion.