Monday, 13 February 2017
Advaita and Christianity
Can you reconcile Christianity with advaita, the Indian philosophy of non-duality based on a monistic interpretation of the Upanishads? Some people believe you can, particularly those who think that it describes the pure essence of all religions, a sort of ur-spirituality into which everything else is absorbed, but I am not one of them. There is a basic contradiction between a view that believes everything is reducible to an undifferentiated oneness (advaita) and one in which unity and multiplicity are both happily contained (Christianity). Superficially the two might seem compatible but in that case Christianity would have to mean something different to what it has always been understood to mean, and it would be no more than a provisional approach to ultimate truth, to be transcended when that ultimate truth, advaita, was known. So it would be just another religion in the relative world, no different to any other, and that is not what Christians believe nor what the evidence, I would say, suggests. I mean by that the evidence of the person of Christ and of his teachings. Just about the only Christian who can be produced in favour of a possible compatibility is Meister Eckhart, but I would see him as someone who emphasised one aspect of the whole, possibly neglected during his lifetime, the unmanifest absolute, at the expense of the totality of it. The idea that the relative is just subsumed into the absolute and has no meaning or purpose in itself is not part of Christianity but it is central to advaita.
A major problem in any reconciliation is that non-duality, if we mean by that Sankara’s advaita, denies the reality of the individual soul while that, in a way, is the whole point of Christianity which alone, as far as I can see, is able to integrate unity and multiplicity in a way that does violence to neither. For though Christianity teaches union with God this is a union of love in which oneness and duality or the Universal and the Individual are both important. The latter is not wholly renounced nor seen as illusionary for the sake of the former. Its separative element is discarded but not its ontological reality. That is just not the case with non-dual metaphysics. As far as the Vedanta is concerned, Christianity is closer to the qualified non-dualism of Ramanuja in that both accept the integrity of the person and the reality of the personal God.