This is another of the many essays written for an Intro to World Religions class. In this particular assignment we were asked to concisely sketch the differentiation of thought and practice between Eastern religions and those that are more Westernized. Enjoy!
In his book, Liberating the Gospels, author John Shelby Spong writes, “The fact that we must recover is that Christianity was not born as a Western religion. A Western mentality has been imposed on this Middle Eastern understanding or revelation of God” (18). Though Spong is speaking specifically to the Judaic origins of Christianity, it raises several important considerations when examining differentiations between the religious dynamics of the East and West. We often take for granted that the three ‘Western’ monotheistic faiths did not come to fruition or arrive fully formed and they did not develop in a vacuum from the influences chronology and surrounding cultures. As Spong reminds, many of the faith that we have come to consider Western have, in all actuality, been westernized. These religions were not always as we have them now but, they are rather Hellenized reflections of their former selves.
When examining the adamant polytheism of the Hindu tradition it is easy to draw stark distinctions between these pluralistic ideals and the monotheism of Judaism. Indeed, as Karen Armstrong makes clear, “We assume that the three patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob – were monotheists, that they believed in only one God” but , it is far “more accurate to call these Hebrews pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan” (14). The ancient Hebrews were monolatrous, at best, prior to the full development of monotheism around the sixth century.
It seems that Western sensibilities are all too willing to unashamedly impose modern concepts, beliefs, and interpretations upon a people, a text, and a time in which such ideas were unheard of, ungraspable, unavailable, and inconceivable. Karen Armstrong explains further, “We have developed, for example, a scientific view of history, which we see as a succession of unique events. In the [Eastern] world, however, the events of history were not seen as singular but as examples of eternal laws, revelations of a timeless, constant reality” (10). Armstrong continues, “Before the modern period, Jews Christians, and Muslims all relished highly allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric interpretations of their sacred texts” (12).
In many of these regards it seems that Christianity has suffered the most from its eroding divorce from its Eastern heritage. “Where Christians have come to indentify orthodoxy with correct belief, Muslims, like Jews, require orthopraxy, a uniformity of religious practice, and see belief as a secondary issue” (37). The “right belief” of Christianity has become the very basis of its soteriology, i.e. doctrinally ascribed beliefs will result in salvific reward of “Heaven” in the afterlife. First and foremost it must be noted that Jesus very rarely speaks of Heaven. Jesus is found speaking more predominantly of the Kingdom of God, though in the Matthean tradition, which is the most Judaic in orientation, renames this verbiage as the Kingdom of Heaven, neither of which should be understood as destinations following death. The “Kingdom,” though implicitly eschatological, was a present reality in-breaking, culminating, and coming to fruition in the here and now. This is far more indicative of ‘realized eschatology,’ that is the Eschaton as a possession of the present. This is an existential engagement with the world and thus has more in common with Buddhism in this regard.
As such in one of the few instances in which Jesus references the day of Judgment, though he does so only in parabolic form, we see that as one stands in Judgment the questions asked by Jesus are not issues of doctrine, dogma, or even belief. He does not ask for a confession or statement of faith. He does not ask for an affirmation of his divinity or any other such theological conception. Instead, those servants found to be “good and faithful” are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to those who were thirsty, gave hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. This bears resemblances to the cessation of suffering spoken of by the Buddha.
Here, I’m reminded of a story in the Talmud. Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are approached by a gentile who requests that they recite the entirety pf the Torah while he stands on one foot. Rabbi Shammai is appalled and condemns the gentile questioner. Rabbi Hillel said to him, “That which you hate, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” In Hillel’s astute paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18 he suggests that the love of the neighbor alone serves as the foundation of the Torah and all its 613 mitzvos. He suggests that every aspect of the Pentateuch is directly connected to man’s piety in relation to his fellow man and the only ‘god’ that seems to enter the equation is that which is revealed in the face of the other.
The Talmud then teaches that a person should envision the world as being perfectly and intricately situated in a state of balance, having equal parts good and evil(reminiscent of the Taoist view) (Ciner). When a person performs a Mitzvah he tilts the entire world towards good and likewise when he commits evil he shifts the entire world towards evil. In the Jewish faith it’s believed that Kedusha (holiness) and Tum’ah(impurity) are the causes of the good and evil in the world and any good that enters this world does so a s a result of a holy act performed by someone in this world. Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, similarly suggests this idea in its notion of Karma (Ciner). Buddhism sees suffering occurring as a consequence of greed, hatred, and delusion and thus, seeks to end suffering by replacing greed with selflessness, hatred with loveand compassion, and delusion with wisdom and enlightenments. As Thomas Merton once said, “In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 – Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.
Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.