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Consider potential synergies between the Christian Theology, Science and the Upanishadic traditions - with particular reference to Scripture. Could there ever be a ‘worldwide theology’ and what would be its theological and outreach value to each tradition?
In this reflection I consider the possibility and benefits of a universal theology which integrates the findings of contemporary scientific understanding with two of the great religious systems in a world increasingly overrun by materialism and rationalism. Of necessity this can only be an overview, not a comprehensive study. I use the analogy of a Jacob’s ladder linking scientists on earth with religious systems at the top.
For many of today’s believers and unbelievers religion has a credibility problem. To have a deep faith or indeed any faith we need material proof we can see, believe and relate to empirically. However, scientists have a religious problem. The Collins Dictionary definition is that science is ‘…. the study of the nature and behavior of natural things and the knowledge that we obtain about them’. Science can observe but not ‘explain’ life. As Albert Einstein observed “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” (Einstein: 1941) Religion is about the interaction between the seen and unseen about the everyday and eternity – and so potentially can square this circle. (quote)
Ideally if both disciplines were on our ‘Jacob’s ladder of faith’ leading up to heaven (Genesis 28:10–19) scientists and unbelievers would be on earth at the bottom pushing us up, with the prophets and seers of the great religions at the top pulling us up. The problem has been neither has been able to see the middle of the ladder. A theological Lingua franca would allow theologians to talk to scientists and religions to talk to atheists and unbelievers. Crucially the religions would be able to talk to each other using this theology. This would allow religions to share the material verifiability of scientific observation with the crucial spiritually enhancing benefits of religion needed to make sense of life. Interestingly, this now seems to be an increasingly achievable goal. Over the last century the religious and scientific camps have been quietly converging - or re-converging - for the first time since Grecian times. After all Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and the Neoplatonists all taught religion and science together. Could it be that if synergies within the Judaeo-Christian and the Hindu Upanishadic traditions combine to support each other’s theology, contemporary science might have the life perspective that Einstein suggested that it needed? For instance, when confronted with the agonies and the ecstasies of our life on earth we would not turn to his Law of Relativity for solace and guidance through our emotional trauma – but to perhaps to the New Testament, the Gita, Proverbs or Ecclesiastes 3 (‘A Time for Everything’). If we were to use an analogy ‘cars’ scientists provide the scientific knowledge and inspiration for the engineers to create them while the great religions the maps and guidance to necessary for their drivers to arrive at useful destinations. One without the other would leave humanity walking. Let us look the developing synergies within this relationship.
Starting at the top of the ladder we could reflect on potential commonalities between Christianity and the Asian Hindu Upanishadic traditions - which in turn include Buddhism and its various off-shoots. Both traditions believe in one ultimate God. Both traditions have a sacred creative word. The Christian has the ‘Logos’ the Hindus ‘Aum’ (or ‘Om’). John’s Gospel opens with the beautiful passage ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1) Creation within Hinduism, although it is cyclic, also starts with a word. ’Aum’. It is this which creates and energises the divine primordial Akasha or space. This partnership can be continued and enriched with Moses’s Genesis 1 which maps the passage of creation through the allegory of a week. The scientist at the bottom of the ladder would agree that our ‘rocky’ planet earth went from the formless empty darkness (of ‘solar debris’ or soup), to light, to the global inundation, to the creation of land mases, vegetation, primitive life forms, animal life and ultimately of human kind. (Genesis 1:1-24) This is mirrored in the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda (O'Flaherty:2010). Crucially Hinduism creates a remarkable scientific synergy; it describes the universe as a divine illusion or delusion called Maya. Interestingly current cosmology further enriches and verifies this synergy firstly by suggesting that before the creation of our universe there was a pre-Big Bang homogeneous soup of material and no light – only potentially. Before Rutherford’s Big Bang the darkness of the physical mass of this primordial potential soup was transformed into the mix of kenotic energy and mass - or the light and multiplicity of the universe we know today. ‘The very early universe was structurally very simple, being an almost uniform expanding ball of matter/energy’ (Polkinghorne:2007). Secondly since Niels Bohr’s foundational work in 1913 on atomic theory we now know that we all share in one vast divine unity created and ‘held together’ by a few basic subatomic particles. Our earthly ‘reality’ and indeed our bodies are a mist of subatomic particles orbiting and interacting with each other and our immediate environment. (If this space were removed then the entire population of the world would be reduced would turn into the volume of an apple (Zimmerman Jones, Andrew:2009). This is just as the Hindu theology describes. Our reality is an illusional construct of our brains. We in fact live in a colourless world. Our minds create colour from a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to our optic nerve. As the Hindu scriptures suggest we live in the divine illusion they call Maya. Current science informs us that we don’t even really ‘own’ our bodies. They were created from material gathered from collapsing stars billions of years ago. As recorded in Ecclesiastes we "all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:20) This is picked up in the beautiful BCP funeral service as we return "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes chips in by observing that the only empirical proof of our identity and existence is that we can think. Cogito, ergo sum "I think, therefore I am" (Descartes:2007). This is where a universal theology, with one foot in the empirical observation could now pick up the baton.
The driest scientist and most bewildered agnostic would surely be grateful for the hand of this theology as they approached the apparent crisis of the physical death of their bodies. The seers at the top of the Faith Ladder have discovered that we, our identities, do not die. At the bottom of the ladder there is now a large and well authenticated body of empirical research documenting the experiences of those who have been successfully revived after medically dying during operations. Many of their testimonies are both detailed and reveal that there is life after death (MacGregor:1978). While hotly debated there is increasingly well-founded empirical evidence of our individuality and therefore our souls’ per exist before birth and survival after death. This is largely founded on the work of University of Virginia's academic methodology and the mathematical impossibility of other explanations. (Watch this space!)
Next we might reflect that having established that the two great religious systems of the world may be on a ladder of faith connecting the relativity of our earthly world with the next, the elephant in the room is whether there are one or two ladders - a Christian and an Upanishadic one – or just one wide one. The benefits of a single wide ladder of faith would be that the theological strengths of each religion can become common strengths. One of these key rungs of the ladder could be commonality in relation to their attitudes to sin and retribution. If we were to subject the two traditions on this subject to a Wesleyan analysis, we would find that both Christian and Hindu scriptures have common ground. The Hindu tradition categorises and systematises this within a divine law they call ‘Karma’. This is a law of cause and effect – of reaping and sowing. In many ways we find similar sentiments regarding sin and retribution all through New Testament. To quote Our Lord in full “Those who use the sword will die by the sword.” In Matthew 26:52 He says "Give, and it will be given to you”. There are also specific teachings relating to earthly reciprocity for sinful actions in Galatians 6:7, Galatians 6:9; Job 4:8 Proverbs 26:27. Perhaps most telling of all we have our Lord charging the invalid he had cured at the Pool of Bethesda to “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” John 5:14. Interestingly the Pharisees, who were of course experts in the Tora, had no issue with the methodology of Jesus’s cure - only that He performed it on the Sabbath. Neither would Asian scriptures. Again, we hear Jesus referring in to sinful reciprocity when both Matthew 9:2-8 and Mark 2:3-12 record people bringing Him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. He said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Again, the teachers of the law objected not to Jesus’s theology but to the fact that Jesus had the divine authority to forgive sins - which was blasphemous had he not been the Son God. This can only be supported when later when St Paul, a Pharisee, wrote to Galatians 6:7 ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.’
If we look at the Asian traditions, currently over 20% of the world population believe in the evolution of the soul through Karma. These include the majority of the 506 million Buddhists and 1.1 Billion Hindus (Pew Research Centre:2020). Importantly this teaching has survived the test of time for almost three millennia. This might suggest that in fact Jesus meant what he said in Matthew 9:2 and John 5:14. Sin results in future injury, disease or misfortune – that you do indeed ‘reap what you sow’ (Galatians 6:7). Within the Orthodox Church we have the teaching “Do and it will be done to you. Do good and good will be done to you. Do evil and evil will be done to you” (Pantelidis:2020).
In my experience I have found that life does indeed nudge us nearer the Christian goal of a life lived in Christ and that the fruits of my actions have been visited upon me a short time later. Equally we do seem to be surrounded by evidence that ’those who live by the sword die by the sword’. We witness the fates of those involved in ISIS have been as brutal as the brutality they meted out on their victims. Equally I have visited prisons and witnessed how those initially involved in ungodly, cruel or irreligious activity find that retribution is swift and often protracted. Conversely, I have lived in the company of saintly people and seen how the fruits and goodness of their lives have returned to them. Lives lived by the beatitudes and the Ten Commandments will usually be long and fruitful - now and in the hereafter.
Then there is the age-old, terrifying and unresolved Christian quandary of ‘Why bad things happen to good people’. Is one life really enough? Some of us live only a few weeks, others four score years and ten. Some of us are born into slavery, deprivation and rejection – some with a silver spoon in their mouths. Where is God’s love and justice? Surely unless we can answer key questions of life, we can never claim credibility with the vast majority of the non-believers. Equally we can undermine the faith of Christian congregations, individually or collectively, when they confront us with questions like: If God is good “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”, “Why are there wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, and natural disasters?”, “What have babies done to deserve an early death?” Why are some born so lucky, and others born in impoverishment and deprivation. Ostensibly the Asian traditions have an answer. For millennia they have regarded every living being as being on a divine journey to salvation. Individuals learn through the cause and effect law of Karma and are reborn until they attain human births, the Imago Dei, through which they can ultimately attain sainthood and salvation. They suggest that we learn through joy and suffering. God’s divine laws create the circumstances for each lesson to be learned. God is, in their view, totally just and totally good. All will be saved when they have learned to live and love within the Imago Dei. For millennia their populations have been convinced, comforted and motivated by this doctrine.
If we were to reflect historically, we would find that Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato were believers in the transmigration of souls - as were the followers of Neoplatonism, Orphism, Hermeticism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism of Roman times. Equally it is thought that some of the early church fathers including Origen were believers as were members of Cathar and Paterene churches in the Middle Ages.
If we were to apply this doctrine to Christianity John Wesley’s Quadrilateral would require textual references. Although the Second Council of Church Fathers, in Constantinople in 553 A.D., deleted many references to transmigration from the New Testament but there are still references to suggesting belief in the transmigration of the souls in Biblical times. ‘As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2). Other references overt or specific references include John 1:21–22, Matthew 16:14, and Matthew 17:10-13. In the Old Testament God told Jeremiah that God knew him before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5). Orthodox Judaism incorporates transmigration in their theology to this day. However most significantly a survey by the Pew Forum in 2009 found that 24% of American Christians recorded their belief in reincarnation – in spite of it not currently being a part of Christian teaching (Pew Research Centre (2020). In Europe an earlier country by country study in a 1981 survey revealed that 31% of regular churchgoing European Catholics expressed sympathy with the concept of reincarnation. If these figures are combined with those of the followers of Buddhism and Hinduism who faith is built around the evolution and transmigration of souls mentioned earlier and we find that more than a third of humanity believe in reincarnation.
If we turn to Wesley’s requirement for experience or evidence of the development of the soul through life forms on our planet, we have only to read of saints such as St Francis who had meaningful conversations and relationships with animals such as the wolf (House:2001). He of course was not alone. There have been a multitude of other saints and hermits who shared this affinity. These would include St Cuthbert, St Basil and St John of Chrysostom. As importantly anyone who has owned a companion or working animal will have talked and interacted with them on a daily basis. It is known that high mammals such as dolphins, whales have extensive vocabularies and are capable of much of the subtle communications normally associated with out own species. Surely, we should join with St John Chrysostom. ‘The Saints are exceedingly loving and gentle to mankind and even to brute beasts… Surely we ought to show them great kindness and gentleness for many reasons, but above all, because they are the same origin as ourselves.’ (Chrysostom. St John:1979).
Equally we will have encountered members of the human race who seem frighteningly near the animal kingdom and others who live truly godly lives. To deny this progression is possibly even to challenge religious credibility. There is an extensive and growing body of academic research providing evidence of children remembering their previous lives (Stevenson:1987). Might it be that the faith-threatening questions above could be answered simply, rationally and finally by using theology within the Asian traditions? Equally might it be that, viewed through this lens, Our Lord’s teaching and the other Biblical references above we already have a pathway to a universal theology and philosophy of life. Could this be a final linking rung on our universal Ladder of Faith?
What might be the benefits of this universal theology? We might reflect that there could be a time when priests will welcome the bereaved mother, the distraught widow, the agonised parent into their study and be able comfort them in the theological certainty that their child or partner or relative had not died but will live again and will continue their journey towards perfection - as they themselves will. We would be able to live lives of faith in the knowledge there is a demonstrably just God and that the apparent imperfection and injustices of this earth would then no longer be considered worrying imperfections - but expressions of divine justice and grace. We would no longer rely on the challenging Augustinian one size fits all theology of original sin but acknowledge and embrace that we are born in the clothing inherited from our previous experience – our previous lives. The Christian life is one of Pauline growth as he so beautifully expressed in 1 Corinthians 13. Equally Our Lord taught us to discover, live and achieve His beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-48, Luke 6:20-28). Is one life enough for us all to evolve from sinner to sainthood. Perhaps the priest will be able to comfort their grieving or suffering parishioners using universal tools of the Ladder of Faith.
I would suggest that any universal theology must have universal appeal, solve universal problems and integrate into established scientific observation. To be ‘Wesleyan’ it must scripturally supported, be practiced by statistically significant traditions, be demonstrably rational and align with the observable facts and events. The Asian perspective on Christian scriptures is simple, just and accessible and supportable by clinical observation. Could it be that by including the three rungs of scientific observation, karma and transmigration we would have a complete Faith Ladder of global relevance and appeal to both believers and importantly the unbelievers in a world increasingly being overtaken by materialism.
Chrysostom. St John (347-407) Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Homily XXIX: Rom. 15.14-24, Nicene and Post-Nicene Father of the Christian Church, Vol. XI, p. 546. Ed. Philip Shcaff. Erdmans, 1979
Descartes, René (2007). The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes. Translated by Lisa Shapiro. University of Chicago Press. p.5
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House, Adrian (2001) Francis of Assisi: Chatto & Windus, London pp 180-181
MacGregor, Geddes (1978) Reincarnation in Christianity: Theosophical Publishing House, London UK (Chapter 4)
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Polkinghorne, John (2007) The Anthropic Principle and the Science and Religion Debate, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge https://faraday-institute.org/resources/Faraday%20Papers/Faraday%20Paper%204%20Polkinghorne_EN.pdf Paper 4
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Stevenson, Ian (1987) Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.
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