Thursday, October 30, 2008

Considering Hinduism (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Some surprising things crop up when we consider Hinduism, a religion whose Eastern roots may make it the hardest for us in the West to understand.

For one, there’s the polytheism issue. Most of us have understood Hinduism to be a polytheistic religion, worshipping as many as millions of different gods and goddesses. But actually, all of these different deities are considered by most Hindus to be manifestations of the one true god, usually referred to as Brahman. Brahman is utter and complete perfection, pretty much beyond human knowledge and comprehension. Brahman is life itself, and all living things are alive because they have a spark or a piece of Brahman in them.

The many different manifestations of Brahman happen in order for people to have a Brahman that they can know and encounter in a personal way. The differently-named gods and their idols or icons are ways that a Hindu person can focus on some aspect or attribute of Brahman and guide their prayers and spiritual growth.

Brahman gives every person a duty to fulfill, or a dharma, of bringing good and peace into the world. Whatever you do and say that does that and fulfills your dharma builds up good karma in the universe. It also brings good karma to you. But if you do things that are against your dharma and hurt people or things, then you bring bad karma into the universe, as well as onto yourself.

When you die, if you have brought more good karma into the universe than bad, then you will advance spiritually and move closer to Brahman, or God. In your next life, you will continue to learn about the divine piece of God within you and be able to make more harmony in the universe, and thus continue to advance until you are ultimately completely at one with God.

But if your balance sheet tips the other way, then you may stay where you are on the spiritual continuum or even move backwards, until you learn what you need to know about your dharma to Brahman.

The idea of karma – that what you do in this life has a direct relationship with what happens to you, either in this life or in your next – kind of rings true for us in a lot of ways. It’s how our society works. We have laws in place in order to make things as fair as we can manage without destroying personal freedom. Obey the laws and things are supposed to go well for you. Disobey them and things will probably go less well.

And it’s sort of a cornerstone of the way we expect things to work in the world. If I’m the older, larger child who knows more and might either cheat or bully my younger sibling in a game, what do my parents tell me? “Play fair.”

If I’m the younger child and my older sib gets to stay up an hour later, just because they’re older – an accident they had nothing to do with and a status they were just given instead of earning it – what’s my response? “That’s not fair.”

We expect this idea of fairness and balance in most of our movies, too. A real villain has to have an appropriately creative death in an action movie or else we’ll be stuck with all the misery he or she caused.

As Christians, we believe in something completely different. We believe in a system that’s completely and totally unfair.

Oh, we understand that acting apart from God has consequences, sure. We just don’t accept that anyone can act any other way. A movie example of this would be the scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven where the young gunman confronts the reality that he has just killed a man. He’s sick about it and tries to justify himself, because the man played a role in an attack on a prostitute. “Well, he had it comin’” he says.

“We all got it comin’, kid,” Eastwood growls back. And that’s straight out of the Apostle Paul, telling us in Romans that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all got it coming, and the only reason we don’t get what we’ve got coming is that God reached out to us in Christ and allowed us to let him take it instead. Through grace, the one guy who didn’t have it coming can stand in for all of us who do, and our broken relationship with God can be healed.

Completely, totally, 100 percent unfair.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Considering Buddhism

Sorry about the long delay; I've had a couple of weeks of reruns. The next few weeks will be sermons dealing with Christianity's engagement with religions of the world, working with some of the thoughts in Adam Hamilton's Christianity and World Religions. Hope you enjoy!

The smiling image of Siddartha Gautama, who was later called the Buddha, is one of the best-known faces around the world today. So it may surprise us when we learn that Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy, and that very few Buddhists actually worship Buddha the way we Christians worship God.

About four hundred years before Jesus was born, Siddartha lived as a prince in a small province of what is now India. His father loved him and wanted him to live free from suffering, so he had just about every luxury you could imagine for that day and time. But when he was 29, Siddartha wondered about the meaning of life and what his purpose was, like a lot of people do when Mister Three-Oh shows up at the end of the block headed their way.

Now, this part of the story may be a legend or it may have roots in history, but it’s designed to explain part of Siddartha’s understanding of the world. He took a chariot ride out into the city and saw a very old man, almost unable to move or fend for himself. Since his father had shielded him from even seeing suffering, he had never seen this kind of infirmity before. He asked the charioteer if this was the fate of all humanity, and the charioteer said, “Yes, all people grow old.”

On two subsequent trips into the city, Siddartha saw people who were very sick and he saw a funeral. Both troubled him greatly, and when he asked his charioteer about them, he got a similar answer each time. “All people suffer from illness.” “All people will one day die.”

Siddartha had never had much thought about the fact that his life would end one day – how many people under 30 do? But the understanding fed what philosophers call angst, anxiety about how widespread suffering is in human lives.

His dad tried to buy his son some cheering up with a big party, but that didn’t work. Siddartha decided that since immense wealth and indulgence couldn’t cure him of his angst, he would try the path of poverty and self-denial. He fasted and denied himself until he was down to eating a single grain of rice per day, but he found that didn’t help him either.

One day about six years later, while meditating, Siddartha had a vision that helped him understand how he could handle the reality of suffering in the world, and he began to teach this way. It was a path to enlightenment, or understanding, and in his language, enlightenment is called budh. So Siddartha became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, and spent the years until his death at 80 teaching his philosophy.

Buddhism is very complex and has a lot of different interpretations, so what I’ll focus on is only a piece of it. Not every Buddhist would agree with what I would say about this piece, and there is room for a whole lot of discussion. The key that Siddartha found to ending his angst was to detach himself from things.

See, suffering is a reality of life and neither wealth nor poverty insulate us from it. But the reason we suffer is that we are attached to things or ideas or people and we worry about them or what will happen to us if we don’t have them. If we have money, we like using it and what it can buy and we might worry about what will happen if we don’t have it any more. That worry, if it’s strong enough, may cause us quite a bit of anxiety and make even the pleasures of our wealth meaningless.

But if we detach ourselves from these things – if we say that whether we are wealthy or not will make no difference to us, and then live that out – then we don’t worry about them and we don’t suffer. To follow the Way of the Buddha is to detach ourselves from concerns about this life so that they can’t cause us anxiety, worry or misery. Our eventual goal, through cycles of death and rebirth, is complete detachment so that our energy simply dissipates into the energy of the universe. This is the Buddhist idea of nirvana, the ultimate goal of human existence.

Now, as a Christian, I find a lot of value in this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. I think Christian people are just like most other people and they attach themselves to things, people and ideas way too often, and those attachments don’t always serve us well. We see Paul talk in Philippians about his great joy in knowing Christ, a joy so great it overcomes the fact that he’s in prison when he’s writing. And here in Romans he talks about the worries of the present world being nothing compared with the great glory of knowing Christ.

Christians could do well to detach ourselves from some of the things we cling to. But the difference between the idea of detachment in Buddhism and what Paul writes about is that we detach ourselves from these things so we can attach ourselves more completely to God.

And we proclaim that God didn’t solve the problem of human sin by backing away from it. He didn’t take up residence in the space Bette Midler set up for him in her “From a Distance,” so far away from us that all our problems are invisible. Instead, he plunged right into the middle of the mess, becoming human and becoming a part of the damaged creation he wanted to save.

That’s where our teacher gives us a different lesson than Siddartha gained from his experiences. We can share some of what our Buddhist friends may believe about the need to set aside our often too-extensive connections with this world. But as Christians we need to understand that we take one step past the place where we empty ourselves, to the place where we then allow God to fill us as he has promised.