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Recently, I was talking to a Buddhist nun. Originally from Hanover, Germany, she had studied Buddhism in a course on religions, read a few more books, and left home and family to join an order in Taiwan. I asked her on what basis she had decided that Buddhism was true. She responded that there was no firm measuring stick but that as you observe the positive traits in the lives of people who pursue a certain set of beliefs, you may find yourself inclined to adopt their principles as well. Her answer was subjective and pragmatic. It also implied that she was in a position to evaluate what was true apart from objective evidence or authority; her subjective impressions were sufficient. And it reflected today’s common illusion that individual human beings are in a position not only to recognize truth, but perhaps even to create it.
This conception of personal autonomy is instrumental in the attractiveness of so-called “Eastern spirituality.” It shows up already with the very term. Why say “spirituality” rather than “religion”? It used to be that the two terms were closely linked. However, I have been convinced that they are widely separated in today’s usage ever since I saw a well-known actress on television declare that she was not at all religious but that she believed in a deep spirituality, which she recognized particularly when she looked into the eyes of animals.
The word religion seems to imply mandatory beliefs and practices. A religion usually has a goal, frequently called “salvation,” though that term can carry many different meanings. If one needs to be “saved,” then one needs to be saved from something. Not everything is as it should be. Some religions even claim that the need for salvation stems from our inadequacy, perhaps even—and one shudders—our sinfulness. For many of our contemporaries, religions chain our autonomy and mar our self-esteem.
On the other hand, “spirituality,” in its current use, is all about self-fulfillment. It does not imply a defect on our part, but it begins with the premise that we are fine, though we could be even better if we would find our spiritual potential and actualize it. “Spirituality” carries no accountability, but it may tout that it can enable all of humanity to hold hands and create a nicer planet.
Various Eastern religions today try to convince Westerners that they are not religions but methods of achieving deeper spirituality. Since people today have been brought up with the conventional falsehood that “all religions ultimately teach the same things,” they may not know any religious content; therefore, they cannot possibly see that this differentiation between the “spiritual” teachings of religions and their beliefs and practices is not tenable.
Hindu spirituality is embedded in the notion that a person is entrapped in the never-ending cycle of samsara (reincarnation). Redemption (moksha) is to escape from this cycle by one of various means—perhaps mystical oneness with Brahman, the disciplines of Yoga, or, most common today, devotion (bhakti) to a personal god or goddess. In Buddhism, spirituality plays a similar role, except that the escape consists of the realization of the impermanence or even emptiness of everything (sunyata), including the unreality of one’s self (anatta). In philosophical Taoism, spirituality is to assume the quietude of “action-less action” (wu-wei), from which the true Way (Tao) can then emerge.
In Christianity, spirituality is altogether dissimilar because the meaning of salvation is radically different: restoration to fellowship with God, our Creator, from whom we are separated by our sin. This reconciliation was made possible by Christ’s historical death and resurrection, and we can come to Him in simple trust without attaining any spirituality first. Spirituality can be equated subsequently with our ongoing growth toward maturity as Christians.
Thus, there is neither generic spirituality nor generic salvation, and placing Eastern after generic does not change the matter. It is different for each religion.
Animals’ eyes notwithstanding, spirituality still gets its meaning and function from the religion in which it is embedded with its concomitant idea of salvation. Furthermore, various parts of religions are not interchangeable. One cannot attain Hindu moksha through Buddhist meditation plus Confucian courtesy. Taoist philosophy will not substitute for saving faith in Christ. The common counsel to take what is best in all religions and combine it is a counsel of death because the pieces will not fit together. A self-constructed religion goes no further than our personal capability to run the universe, which, I think we all agree, is not very far.
Thus, the true content of spirituality depends on the true meaning of salvation, and this depends on which religion is true. We are convinced that Christianity is true. But must we then say that all the beliefs of all other religions are false? Surely that would be going too far.
• A large number of Hindu philosophical and devotional schools advocate a single personal God.
• Buddhism holds that clinging to earthly objects of pleasure eventually causes suffering.
• Jainism teaches that no lifeform is intrinsically worthless.
• Confucianism shows us that virtuous relationships among people will benefit everyone.
• Taoism declares that when human beings try to fix the universe by their actions, they only make matters worse.
I have admittedly phrased these statements without specifying their surrounding content. As they stand, they appear to be in harmony with biblical principles: belief in God, the self-destructiveness of focusing on selfish pleasure, respect for life, nurturing virtuous relationships, and humility concerning our own capabilities. It would seem that these ideas are true. Could it not be the case that Eastern spirituality is attractive to many people because it promotes these truths?
Perhaps so, but please note that I associated each of these values with a different religion. As we said, there is no such thing as a generic Eastern spirituality. In fact, some Asian religions contradict each other on some of these points. Thus, logically, no one can be attracted to any one religion based on all of these five points.
As I hinted already, we must recognize that in their own contexts, these statements take on different meanings from my paraphrases. Here are some examples of how the apparent similarities clash with our total worldview:
• Shiva as a single personal God has little in common with Yahweh, the covenant Lord.
• The detachment taught by Buddhism includes treating your family as strangers.
• The Jain respect for life is based on the idea that all living things, down to blades of grass, are souls in the cycle of reincarnation.
• The prescripts of Confucius are pragmatic and superficial, unlike the Christian ideal of love.
• Classical Taoism has nothing to substitute for our lack of ability to change the world. We must let the Tao run its course.
Still, even when we take these statements in their own contexts, they still contain some truth, though the contexts definitely obscure it. So, how can we account for any truth in a religion that is supposed to be false as a whole?
From a biblical point of view, there is no reason why we should expect a false religion to contain only false statements. God has revealed Himself in His Word, to be sure, but He has also revealed Himself in His creation (as described in Romans 1), and He has given us a fundamental moral compass in our consciences (as described in Romans 2). But, of course, human beings have rejected these general truths. They have preferred their own autonomy, worshiping the creature (including themselves) rather than their Creator and designing codes of morality based on their own preferences. Still, the fact that there is general revelation explains why other religions are not totally devoid of true beliefs and, perhaps, why people are attracted to them.
Assigning an origin in general revelation to certain true ideas changes nothing of what we said above concerning a self-constructed spirituality. Let us say that I am a Hindu in a Vaishnavite bhakti tradition that holds that there is only one god who created the world and to whom I am accountable, namely Vishnu, under the name of Ram. To whatever extent I may hold to monotheism, we can assign that belief to general revelation, but the rest of the context still concerns rescue out of samsara, not the biblical message of salvation. Or, if I’m a Buddhist who attempts to detach himself from this world, I am still lost because I am not attaching myself to the person and work of Christ.
In summary, Eastern spirituality may be attractive to a number of people, but even if we recognize that the religions that embody such spirituality contain some truths derived from general revelation, we must still say, sadly, that they cannot provide salvation.