by Paul Copan

In her book Out on a Limb, Shirley MacLaine said that the “tragedy of the human race was that we had forgotten that we were each Divine.”  Then she added, “You are everything.  Everything you want to know is inside of you.  You are the universe.”[1]

Such a view is typical in certain Eastern philosophies, such as the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism.  One collection of Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, speaks of the undifferentiated unity of reality (called monism).  Some types of Eastern monism – though not all – are referred to as pantheism (from the Greek pan – “everything” – and theos – “God”):  Everything that exists is ultimately reduced to the Reality that Hindus called Brahman.  The Upanishads declare that the self (atman) is identical with Brahman.

 

    • “All this is Atman.”[2]
    • “Atman is being known…Everything is known.”[3]
    • “This self is the Brahman.”[4]
    • “I am Brahman.”[5]

 

Within this school of thinking, there is no dualism (an actual distinction between two things, such as subject and object, or between persons) or plurality of things.  Any apparent difference between you and me or between you and the Ultimate Reality can be compared to a wrinkle in a carpet.  The wrinkle is not ultimately distinct form the carpet, as, say, my desk is from the computer on which I am typing. As the Hindu philosopher Sankara held, the ultimate reality of Brahman, with which each of us is identical, is pure consciousness without any distinctions whatsoever.  Although this notion is difficult to grasp, we can compare it to our own consciousness – but without any thought, reason, or emotion.  Brahman is

what your own consciousness would be like if you were able to completely blank your mind of all internal differentiation and distinctions – that is, if through meditation you eliminated all sense impressions, feelings, and thoughts and simply experienced a state of pure awareness.[6]

This reality – Brahman – alone exists; it is the sole reality, and there are no distinctions.  Everything else is illusory.[7]  This Ultimate Reality has no personality; it is impersonal and beyond description.

The cosmic amnesia that Shirley MacLaine speaks of is resolved by a kind of mystical illumination or intuitive insight.  We do not reason our way to this insight, since this pure consciousness is beyond reason.  New Age thinkers tell us that we must look within ourselves to find our true identity.

This kind of thinking is reflected in Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God, in which he claims that God “told” him that “words are the least reliable purveyor of truth.”[8] (This raises the obvious question, Isn’t Walsch’s “God” using words, which are an unreliable means of communication?)  Look at Walsch’s alleged conversation with God:

 

[God:]  I cannot tell you My Truth until you stop telling Me yours.

[Walsch:]  But my truth about God comes from You.

[God:]  Who said so?

[Walsch:]  Leaders.  Ministers.  Rabbis.  Priests.  Books.  The Bible, for heaven’s sake!

[God:]  Those are not authoritative sources.

[Walsch:]  They aren’t?

[God:]  No.

[Walsch:]  Then what is?

[God:]  Listen to your feelings.[9]

 

The West’s embrace of such Eastern ideas is not by accident.  The cold rationalism of the Enlightenment, modern technology’s depersonalizing influence on society, and the ecological ruination of the earth by human beings have helped make Eastern monism more appealing.  New Age thinking – a kind of souped-up Hinduism – holds that humans are evolving toward the recognition of their godhood or union with “God.”  This unified global spirituality will lead to a unified humanity (a kind of social utopia) and harmony with nature.

Yet ironically, Eastern monism actually undermines the divinely given gifts of rationality, personality, and creation.  And those who have leaned toward the East overlook the resources within the Christian tradition to affirm the importance (though not the deification) of reason, personality, and relationships, and care for creation.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

There are philosophical problems with Eastern monism, and I want to suggest some points that might be useful in helping to dis-orient our Eastern-minded friends and assisting them in seeing the greater plausibility of theism.  Theism emphasizes the Creator-creation distinction.  Human beings, though not divine, are made in God’s image and reflect certain characteristics of the Creator in important ways:  God is relational, self-aware, rational, personal, volitional, and moral; we have been made with these characteristics, though in limited measure.  Below, therefore, are reasons for preferring theism over monism/pantheism.

First, the universal amnesia regarding our divinity is difficult to account for.  If the human self is really divine – if there is no difference between God and humans – then doesn’t it seem strange that so many human beings have forgotten this?  How do we account for this cosmic amnesia?[10]

Second, perhaps it is the monist who is misperceiving reality.  The Eastern-minded person claims that the traditional Westerner, who takes as real the world external to her mind, is caught in the grip of illusion and does not see things clearly.  But if we are deceived about our consciousness of our own individual existence and about our being distinct form other persons or from physical entities around us, perhaps we could argue that the monist or pantheist is also being deceived in maintaining that reality is ultimately one.[11]  After all, the monist has drawn his conclusions based on his own individual experience as well.  Further, why should we take the Eastern monistic view seriously when it seems to be so contrary to our experience?

Third, how does the pantheist distinguish between fact and fantasy?  The burden of proof is on the monist to tell us why the common ability to distinguish between these two is a mistake.  Monism has some serious practical consequences.  If the world is illusory, how can we distinguish between imagination and fantasy and what is real?  Lao-Tzu, the purported founder of Taoism, asked, “If, when I was asleep I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly, how do I know when I am awake, I am not a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”

It seems that for the most part (unless we’re habitually on mind-altering drugs or under alcohol’s influence), we humans can differentiate between a dream state and an awareness of a real world outside our minds.  This seems quite obvious to us, and the burden of proof falls to the one who rejects what is apparent to so many.  As philosopher Peter van Inwagen puts it, the question arises why anyone would accept this Eastern view of reality.  The best procedure is to believe what is apparently true unless there is some known reason to believe that it is not.  For example, many centuries ago, belief that the earth was flat seemed true, but this thinking needed to change when the earth was shown to be spherical.  The best we can do as humans is to believe what seems to be true unless we have good reasons to reject it.  But to believe what does not even seem to be true when we have no good reason to accept it is profoundly counter-intuitive.[12]  Why think that our senses are regularly deceiving us?  Aristotle was right when he said that the rejection of sense perception is a rejection of common sense: “To disregard sense perception…would be an instance of intellectual weakness.”[13]

The monistic Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba has said:

 

Rebuked by his wife

For not shedding even a tear

Over the death of their only child,

The man explained

“I dreamed last night

That I was blessed with seven sons;

They all vanished when I woke up.

Whom shall I weep for?

The seven that are vapour

Or the one that is dust?

The seven are a dream

And the one a day-dream”[14]

 

Yet monism does not allow us to distinguish between dream and non-dream.  It compels us to reject the everyday-ness and matter-of-factness of life.  Even gurus such as Baba must eat, sneeze, relieve themselves, look both ways before crossing streets, and comply with the law of gravity.  If monists truly practiced what they preached, would any of them be left?[15]

If monism is true, then another bizarre result follows.  Say you are holding a pen in front of you.  You press your eyeball a certain way so that you see double.  But you know by other means of perception (such as your sense of touch) and by memory that the pen is not double.  If monism were true, however, then the object would be both double and non-double in the same manner!  We would be left with an utterly impossible state of affairs.

Fourth, if the external world does not exist and everything is ultimately one, why does the monist try to explain away the external world in the first place?  If the world is illusory, how did it ever come into people’s thinking that it is real?  What motivates the monist to try to convince distinction-making persons that those differences do not really exist?  Shouldn’t the very attempt to do so make us slightly suspicious – like the older child who volunteers “I didn’t do it” to his mother when his toddler sibling is wailing and has a red welt on her cheek?  If the monist tries to convince those who disagree with his view, isn’t he assuming that he knows precisely what his friend appears to be experiencing?  Wouldn’t that perhaps be an argument in favor of an external world, at least on the face of it?  Furthermore, the very fact that the monist disagrees with his detractor assumes that their views are really different.  Otherwise, why try to change another person’s mind?

In any event, there is no satisfactory experiential basis for believing in this illusionistic philosophy.[16]   Everyday experience and observation are completely at odds with this claim.  Should we really give up on the validation and verification of certain scientific discoveries?  The monist approach is out of touch with life as we live it each day.  The wisest and commonsense course to take is this: Our sense of perception of the physical world should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

On the other hand, the Christian faith does not call us to abandon a critical realism about the world around us.  While we may misperceive (e.g., we see a mirage on the hot pavement making it look wet) or commit errors, we can still get a great deal right.  The fact that we can recognize our errors actually presupposes that truth exists; by knowing what is true, we can judge some thing to be erroneous.  The fact that we differentiate between illusions or mirages and true (veridical) perception attests to our ability to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate sensory experience.

Fifth, if the external world is illusory, at least the illusion is real, which creates a serious, problem for monism: There are two real entities instead of just one.  If I am just a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or vice versa, then can’t it be said that at least the dream has a certain reality to it, even if this dream state does not correspond to the external world or the Ultimate Reality?  In other words, at least two realities in the universe would exist: (1) the One/Ultimate Reality and (2) the illusion of the external world.[17]  Thus, everything is not all one.

Sixth, the monist will deny rules of logic, which is self-defeating.  The monist can, therefore, give us no reason for believing his view is true.  D.T. Suzuki wrote in his Introduction to Zen Buddhism that we comprehend life only when we abandon logic.[18]  Yet Suzuki uses logic to deny the use of logic.  He uses the law of non-contradiction (A cannot be both A and non-A) to make his point.  Rejecting the either-or distinction common in Western logic, Suzuki favors the both-and “logic” of monism (Eastern logic). But to do so is actually to utilize Western logic.  The Easterner is assuming that he must decide between either Western logic or Eastern logic.  If making logical distinctions is not necessary to discern the truth, then the monist cannot hope to explain his view.

A similar blunder was made by Alan Watts, a former Christian minister who became a Buddhist.  He maintained that apparent opposites such as good and evil, active and passive, truth and falsehood, yin and yang do not exist in light of a higher unity.  He rejected rules of logic since all reality is ultimately one.  He rejected Christianity as truth because it was “incorrigibly theistic.”  But to reject Christianity, he used logic.  He believed in the very distinctions he claimed his worldview denied.  He believed Christianity was the false or incorrect view and that Buddhism was true.  The acceptance of monism and the rejection of distinctions present us with a clear and obvious distinction.

Since logic presupposes distinctions, the monist cannot even argue for the truth of his position since this would entail that non-monistic views are false.  He would use Western (either-or) logic to do so.  One cannot eliminate another philosophy of life without using the hard edge of logic.  And the monist’s own position is further undermined because he himself makes distinctions within his own worldview.  For instance, he presupposes a distinction between the enlightened person and one who is unenlightened.  Again, basic laws of logic are necessary and inescapable.  To deny them is to use them.

Seventh, it is difficult to take seriously a worldview that denies the existence of good and evil.  In his book The Lotus and the Robot, Arthur Koestler tells of an interview he and several others had with a Zen Buddhist scholar at the International House of Tokyo.  Writing in 1961, Koestler recounts the conversation:

 

“Buddhism lays great stress on truth.  Why should a man tell the truth when it may be to his advantage to lie!”

“Because it is simpler.”

Somebody else tried another tack.  “You favor tolerance toward all religions and all political systems.  What about Hitler’s gas chambers?”

“That was very silly of him.”

“Just silly, not evil?”

“Evil is a Christian concept.  Good and evil exist only on a relative scale.”

“Should it include those who deny tolerance?”

“That is thinking in opposite categories, which is alien to our thought.”

And so it went on, round after dreary round.[19]

 

Koestler offered this assessment of the conversation: “This impartial tolerance towards killer and the killed, a tolerance devoid of charity, makes one skeptical regarding the contribution which Zen Buddhism has to offer the moral recovery of Japan – or any other country.”[20]

Eastern monism ultimately yields a moral relativism.  Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha shows us the tragic moral consequences of monism.  Siddhartha (or Buddha) states at the closing of his life:

Everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.  Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding: then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.  I learned through my body and soul that it is necessary for me to sin, that I needed to lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.[21]

Also, if the Ultimate Reality is beyond good and evil – that is, it is neither good nor evil – and if evil is only an illusion, there are ultimately no wrong acts or thoughts:  “What difference would it make whether we praise or curse, counsel or rape, love or murder someone?  If there is no final moral difference between these actions, then absolute moral responsibilities do not exist.”[22] Cruelty and compassion are not ultimately different.  Monism obliterates any objective moral order as well as one’s personal moral responsibility to do right and reject wrong.[23]

Neal Walsch’s Conversations with God makes the same kind of relativistic assertions.  Claiming to speak God’s words, Walsch writes, “You have no obligation.  Neither in relationship, nor in all of life…Nor are you bound by any circumstances or situations, nor constrained by any code of law.  Nor are you punishable for any offense, nor capable of any – for there is no such thing as being ‘offensive’ in the eyes of God.”[24]  Again, “I have never set down a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ a ‘do’ or ‘don’t.’  To do so would be to strip you completely of your greatest gift – the opportunity to do as you please.”[25]  This prohibition, it is claimed, would deny the reality of who a human person really is.  There are no objective moral standards or obligations according to such a view, as these would interfere with one’s freedom.

On the other hand, our being made in the image of a personal and good God enables us to affirm objective goodness and reject evil; we can affirm them as truly distinct.  In the depths of our being, if our moral faculties are functioning reasonably well, none of us really wants to admit that there is no difference between good and evil.

G.K. Chesterton saw through the kind of affirmations that Eastern monists make:  “That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.”[26]  There is no moral challenge in the monistic view because “we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test.”[27]

Eighth, Eastern monism ultimately obliterates our uniqueness as persons made in the image of a personal God.  The Japanese poet Issa (1762-1826), one of the best-loved haiku poets, led a very sad life.  All five of his children died before he was thirty.  After one of their deaths, he went to a Zen master and asked for some advice to help him make sense of his suffering.  The master told him that the world is just like the dew, which evaporates when the sun shines upon it.  Life is transient, and to grieve such loss and desire something more is a failure to transcend one’s own selfish desires.  Despite this philosophical answer, Issa recognized that there is something more than such an impersonal explanation.  He wrote this poem:

This Dewdrop World –

A dewdrop world [it is],

And yet,

And yet…[28]

It seems that a view that completely contradicts the deeply personal dimension of life – which is so fundamental to our human identity – is tragically flawed.  And the ultimate goal of much of Eastern thought is the annihilation of the self – the absorption of the self into the Ultimate Reality.  We could compare the self to a drop that loses all identity in the ocean of the Ultimate Reality (e.g., Brahman); this takes place at moksha (being “snuffed out” as a self), when the cycle of reincarnation finally ends.  But the philosophy of Issa’s Zen master requires denying the preciousness of our deepest relationships and actually embracing an evil, callous mind-set. (We could also add that the Buddhist doctrine of transience or impermanence is self-contradictory: It affirms the permanent principle of impermanency.  Oddly, it demands that we desire the elimination of desire, which is the source of suffering.)

In the Christian worldview, evil, suffering, and loss are to be faced with realism.  They are not to be disowned since this would ultimately devalue us as human beings created with dignity and made for relationship with the living God.  Death and suffering are actually reminders of our limitations and that we are not divine after all.  They show us that all is not right in the world and that we must cast ourselves on the God who loves us, suffers with us, and has dealt decisively with evil in the death of Jesus on the cross.  His death and resurrection paved the way for a glorious renewed existence in the new heavens and the new earth, where we’ll enjoy unmediated access to God and where there will be no more sorrow or suffering – all this without obliterating our distinctive identities.

Many interreligious dialogues emphasize ritual or ethical commonalities between religions.  One fundamental difference that is frequently ignored is what happens to the self in the future.  Theism stresses the ongoing existence of individual humans; according to many Eastern views, self is annihilated or extinguished.

 

[1] Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb (New York: Brantam, 1983), 347.

[2] Chandogya Upanishad, 7.52.2.

[3] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.5.6.

[4] Ibid., 2.5.19.

[5] Ibid., 1.4.10.

[6] Robin Collins, “Eastern Religions,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael Murray (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 187.  Collins’s chapter offers a concise perspective on a critique of Eastern religion.

[7] For further discussion, see John M. Koller, Oriental Philosophies, 2d ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985), 83-99.

[8] Neal Donald Walsch, Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue, vol. 1 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995).  For a critique of the book, see John Winston Moore, “Conversations with the God of This Age: Neal Donald Walsch’s Connections with the Dark Side,” Spiritual Counterfeits Project Journal 22, nos. 2-3 (summer/fall 1998).  Available on-line at www.scp-inc.org/.

[9] Walsch, Conversations with God, 8.

[10] Norman Geisler and William Watkins, Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 103.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993), 31.

[13] Aristotle, Physics, 8.3, 253a33.

[14] Cited in Vishal Mangalwadi, The World of Gurus, 2d ed. (New Delhi: Vikas, 1987), 253.

[15] Geisler and Watkins, Worlds Apart, 102.

[16] Collins, “Eastern Religions,” 189.

[17] Furthermore, even if all the distinctions we experience are dreams or illusions, there are clearly distinctions within our dreams themselves – for example, between a butterfly and a flower.

[18] D.T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1991), 58.

[19] Arthur Koestler, The Lotus and the Robot (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 273-74.  For the sake of clarity, I have laid out the conversation in a more readable format than Koestler’s account.

[20] Ibid., 274.

[21] Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1971), 116.

[22] Geisler and Watkins, Worlds Apart, 103.

[23] Stuart Hackett, Oriental Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 177.

[24] Walsch, Conversations with God, 135.

[25] Ibid., 39.

[26] G.K. Chersterton, Orthodoxy, 18th ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Image, 1959), 76.

[27] Ibid., 35.

[28] Taken from Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 223.

Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair and Associate Professor of Philosopher and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. This article is reprinted from chapter 5 of his book That’s Just Your Interpretation. (Baker Books). Used by permission.