To most Christians, the Eastern mindset is largely a mystery. We recognize a few symbols like Yin and Yang and chuckle when we read the wisdom of Confucius in a fortune cookie. But the rise of the Eastern worldview in our society is no laughing matter. While dormant in the West for many years, the influence of Eastern religions took off in the mid-1960s when the United States relaxed its immigration laws and access to Eastern ideas became much more accessible through technology. Today, there are over one million Hindus and nearly two million practicing Buddhists in the United States. More Americans than ever are interested in the Eastern religions. As professor of a Comparative Religions course, I have noticed that more students are becoming intrigued with Eastern thought; some practice Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Shintoism to some extent.
So what does this mean for Christians? As Nancy Pearcey in her book, Total Truth, has rightly pointed out, the promotion of the Christian worldview involves more than just the promotion of the Christian philosophy — it also involves the refutation of non-Christian worldviews. That is why Christians should have a basic understanding of Eastern pantheism.
The Basics of the Eastern Worldview
While each Eastern religion has its own distinct beliefs that separate it from others, there are enough common elements among these religions that allow us to speak of an “Eastern worldview.”
Absolute: According to the Eastern worldview, “God” or “the Absolute,” is an impersonal force that functions as the ground for all being. Brahma, for example, is the impersonal ground of all things in Hinduism. The Tao in Taoism is a mysterious, impersonal cosmic power that is present in all experiences. Important to Eastern philosophy, then, is the assertion that the Absolute is an impersonal being that pervades the universe. Also, this Absolute does not have relationships with human beings. This starkly contrasts with the Christian view that God is both separate from and involved with His creation; He is also a personal being who desires a relationship with people.
History: In Eastern thought history is cyclical. It is like a wheel that turns endlessly. The universe was not created at any beginning point; thus, it has no beginning and no end. Humans, too, are lost in a near endless ‘cycle of rebirths’ or reincarnation in which they repeatedly live and die. This is contrary to the Christian view that history moves in a linear fashion; God created the world at a specific time, and history is headed toward a God-ordained culmination.
Purpose of Life: The Eastern worldview is pessimistic about life, holding that life is primarily about suffering. People suffer because of the physical cravings and attachments they have. The solution to this problem is to escape these attachments and cravings by obtaining moksha, which means “liberation.” Reaching liberation is the product of losing yourself and your identity in the impersonal Brahma (Hinduism) or Nirvana (Buddhism). Like a drop of rain that becomes absorbed into the ocean upon impact, you must strive to lose yourself in impersonal reality. Christianity, on the other hand, while stressing the negative aspects of the fall, is also optimistic because Jesus delivers us from sin and death. Even the creation itself is headed toward restoration. Also, while part of a worshiping community, all people still retain their individual identities throughout eternity.
Life After Death: The Eastern religions believe in reincarnation. Thus the soul or immaterial parts of a person are reborn in some other object or person. The cosmic principle that determines one’s lot in the next life is karma. If you accumulate karmic debt in this life, you will be born into a lower status in your next life — perhaps as an animal or a human with a lower social status. If you do good in this life by denying your desires, you may move up in the next life — perhaps from a woman to a man or from a lower to a higher caste. For the unique few who finally put away all attachments and cravings, the cycle of rebirths can be broken and an eternal merging with Brahma or Nirvana takes place. Christianity, though, rejects reincarnation since the Scripture says, “[I]t is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). People have only one life, and death brings all into face-to-face judgment with their Creator.
The Eastern worldview offers a comprehensive view of reality, but it is a false perspective. Christians today should know the basics of the Eastern worldview as a means to lovingly reach out to those lost in its grasp.
- Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.
Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D., teaches Apologetics, Historical Theology, and Theology at the Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California.