Religion East versus West

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I would describe myself as a connoisseur in religion. I was born and raised as a Christian. I grew up in an Anglican family. I attended a well-known Anglican school in Hong Kong and studied Scripture as an academic subject. I also joined a fellowship and engaged in regular Bible study with evangelical Christians when I was fourteen. But since Hong Kong is a confluence point of East and West, I am also fortunate enough to have plenty of opportunity to be exposed to non-Christian religions. I encountered Taoism while studying Chinese literature in middle school and I fell in love with it immediately. Then, when I was a little older, I started attending dharma talks run by various Buddhist organizations. I am cosmopolitan in terms of religious knowledge.

A Facebook friend recently made a comparison between the Eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Hinduism) and the Western religions (essentially the Abrahamic religions). He said that the main theme of Western religions is the battle between good and evil. By and large, the Western religions are triumphalist religions, with winners and losers. He offered a sampler of the language Western religions use: Christ defeated death, the great battle of Armageddon, the wrestle between principalities, Christus Victor etc. Plenty of theatrics. The Eastern religions, on the other hand, have no dramatic war themes and no cosmic struggles. They are characterized by play, dance and music. In Hinduism, there is a main theme of Lila. The idea is that every phenomenon and every activity in our world is part of a divine play. Dance also has a special meaning in Hinduism. A major Hindu deity, Shiva, is known as the cosmic dancer. His dance, called Nataraja, symbolizes the connection between religion and the arts. It also represents all the activities in the universe, encompassing creation, destruction and all things in between. He asked for my opinion about his portrayal of the East-West difference.

This is a great opportunity for reflections and cross-culture and cross-religion comparison. While I was a young boy, I was impressed by Christian organizations bearing the name of “Crusade”. Perhaps I was confused between the Crusaders and the Salvation Army. Which young person does not aspire to join an organization to save the world? However, as I grew older, my impression on the Christian crusaders dramatically changed. I read European history and became aware of the atrocities of the Crusade Wars and the Grand Inquisition. Increasingly, I became uncomfortable with the monotheistic religions in general and Christianity in particular. I came to see the pyrrhic nature of these Western religions — they tend to see the world as involved in a mortal combat of a spiritual nature, and the believers feel the need to annihilate their enemies at all cost. The stakes are high if there is a cosmic war between two principalities. Who wants to be on the losing side in such high-stake game? Many Western religions are influenced by Manicheism, a dualistic religion, from Persia (today’s Iran). Manicheism sees the world in black and white, light and darkness, with nothing in between. The objective is total victory and conquest. Manicheism is close to duotheism, with two gods, one good and one evil.

The Eastern religions are much different. The objective is not conquest or victory. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the final objective is to find peace, enlightenment and liberation. There is no cosmic battle between good and evil in these Eastern religions. In Buddhism, for example, the cause for men’s evil deeds is not because there is a lord of darkness. Rather, humankind commit evil deeds due to ignorance. Thus, the ending of suffering has to do with inner cultivation, mindfulness and enlightenment. “Salvation,” if we can call it that, is based on wisdom and insight, not spiritual war and struggle. It is for this reason that the Eastern religions are intrinsically more peaceful and civil. In addition, the worldview of Eastern religions is never binary or black-and-white. A human being is never seen as either a man of God or an agent of the Devil. The Taoist symbol of yin-yang is a case in point. Yet, the yin-yang circle is divided into a region of black and a region of white. But in the white region, there is some black. In the black region, there is some white. Furthermore, yin and yang do not try to annihilate each other. They need each other and complement each other. It is the dynamic interaction between yin and yang that makes the world go around. The Eastern viewpoint is more organic and nuanced that way.

Another big difference is that of exclusivity to Truth. This feature is particularly prominent in Christianity. Judaism does not claim exclusivity to Truth. It does recognize that there are righteous people in other nations and religions. Similarly, Islam has a sense of pluralism. The Qur’an states that to every nation is sent a messenger. The prophet Muhammad is not the only one. Only Christianity claims exclusive access to Truth and salvation. But even in Judaism and Islam, there is the notion of “false gods.” This is what monotheism is about — the worship of the one true God and denunciation of the false gods. For this reason, there are always elements of cultural imperialism, intolerance and belligerence in the monotheistic religions. They tend to suppress the other belief systems. Why tolerate falsehood, especially if it is from Satan? The groundwork is laid here for religious persecution due to a difference in beliefs and doctrines. The intolerance is built in.

The notion of Lila (divine play or drama) is instrumental in making the Indian religions more peaceful than others. Despite the apparent conflicts and tension in the world, Hindus see divine play in everything. In a very deep sense, “all is well” in the world because the apparent conflicts are Maya (illusion). Underlying all phenomena are Brahman (the true Self). In an Indian creation myth, it is said that the world was created because God was bored. To alleviate his boredom, God forgets himself and manifests himself in the myriad things. He hides himself in the core of his creations. The dramas in the phenomenal world are simply the way of entertainment for the Creator. There is no high-stake game to win. In theist parlance, God is always in control, despite the illusion otherwise. In the theist religions, such an understanding also exists among the theologians and mystics. Christian theology says that God is omnipotent and omniscient. Satan is not his rival but his servant. But this understanding is not commonly known among the ordinary believers. Rather, the common believers seem to subscribe to a dualistic view of spiritual warfare with two principalities — God and Satan. Sometimes, it is not even sure who will win in the end.

Based on these considerations, it would seem that the Eastern religions are superior to the Western religions, with perhaps one exception. There is no strong tradition of social justice in the Eastern religions. In contrast, there is a prominent element of social justice in all three of the Abrahamic religions. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a Religious Left and a Religious Right. The Religious Left came from the Prophetic Tradition. Although many Christians think of the prophets as foretellers of the future, one major social role of the prophets is to serve as the voice of the common people, which speak truth to power. Morris U. Schappes, the longtime editor of Jewish Currents, reminds us of the co-existence of the conservative wing and the progressive wing of Judaism:

There are… two traditions in Jewish life and history. There is the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the tradition of those who stoned the prophets… We progressive Jewish secularists lay claim to the Prophetic tradition of challenging tyranny, poverty, oppression and war. Secularism without social action… is too thin for survival. We see this social action as based on, its broadest terms, on the social program of the Prophets, whom we abandon at our peril.

While the evangelical Christians today often portray Jesus simply as God and world savior, the Christian Left also recognizes Jesus as a speaker for the poor, the oppressed and the ones rejected and marginalized by mainstream society. There is a reason why in the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as sitting with the drunkards, the tax collectors and the “sinners” in dinner parties. In contemporary Christian history, the most famous member of the Christian Left is perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a pioneer and leader in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement. Other members of the Religious Left include Jim Wallis (author of God’s Politics), Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor of the progressive Jewish magazine, Tikkun) and African American theologian Cornel West, who is known for his criticism of President Obama. Separately, there is a current of progressivism and reforms within the Roman Catholic Church itself. Both Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have severely criticized global capitalism because of its exploitative treatment of the workers. The voice of the Left can be distinctively heard in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching.

In summary, the most prominent difference between the Eastern religions and the Western religions lies in the fighting spirit, which is based on the notion that there is evil to fight and conquer. The idea of a battle between good and evil is present in the Western religions, but largely absent in the Eastern religions. While the strong fighting spirit in the Western religions has often led to wars and atrocities committed in the name of God, such spirit is also key to the fight for social and economic justice. Similarly, the notion of Maya in the Eastern religions has both a bright side and a dark side. If we believe that all the inequities in our world are illusions, then there will be little motivation to reform and change the status quo. In a way, the East and the West are like yin and yang. They complement each other. The East is more about silence, meditation and peace. The West is more about action, fighting and conquest. Certainly, there are real evils in the world that are worth fighting against. Social injustice is real. Political persecutions are real. Institutional evils are real. There are causes that are worth fighting for. In the best scenario, we combine the dynamic fighting energy of the West with the wisdom of the East. There is a way for the East and the West to work together to benefit all humanity.

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