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. 

Perhaps the principal source of the idea that advaita describes the essence of reality and all other religions are saying the same thing as it does (though presumably not so well) is the group known as the Traditionalists who were centred around Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon. I don't deny that these men opened up metaphysics more than most in the 20th century but they were intellectuals and suffered from the fault of all intellectuals. They privileged knowledge over love. Consequently, in line with Sankara, from whose selective interpretation of the Vedanta they took their metaphysics, they put the personal at a lower level of reality than the Impersonal, not seeing that the latter is fundamentally meaningless and incomprehensible without the former. They reduced love to bhakti which is a common but fundamental mistake. Bhakti is a kind of love but it is not love in the full Christian sense. It is more like intense devotion to an ideal, so directed from below upwards, and a highly refined emotional state rather than the state of being that Christian love, as in the idea that God is Love, is. Christianity is not a bhakti religion even if some of its saints have followed that path. It is the religion of love and there is a profound difference between the devotion of a saint for Jesus and the love demonstrated by Jesus himself. One is a means of attaining spiritual uplift while the other is the reality of the spiritual world. One is feeling, the other is being. If I may make a point based on personal experience, I could not compare the devotion I felt for my teachers with the love that they manifested due to their realised oneness with God. 

This post was prompted by some comments I made on another blog a while ago that was speculating on a possible way of finding advaita and Christianity compatible. I shall set forth my comments in the next post as an addendum to this one but first I should express my basic position which is that advaita is a misinterpretation of what reality is so there's no need to find it compatible with anything. It's just wrong, albeit only by a whisker. But then that little error makes a huge difference when we're talking about the essence of being. At that level to be a little wrong is to be completely wrong. I can see why Sankara took the position he did but it is fundamentally an intellectual position, though possibly backed up with some experience of non-dualistic states of consciousness, and it confuses the so called ground of being with God. We are saved from that error by the revelation in Christianity of the Trinity which explains how reality can be at the same time one and many with both true. For the Trinity is not a step down from Unity but exists at the highest level of reality. Which means that the non-duality of advaita, far from being the highest metaphysical concept there can be, is actually a considerably lower understanding of how things are than the Christian idea that within the basic oneness of God there are three persons and this gives room for the consequent reality in creation of a multiplicity of individuals.

This leads to another irreconcilable difference between advaita and Christianity. In Christianity, following on from Judaism, God creates the world. It is a deliberate act that results from the expression of his love. What is more, what God creates is real. Maybe not real in the absolute ultimate sense of self-existing - only God is real in that sense - but real in the sense that it has its own true God given reality.  Non-duality does not accept the reality in creation because it does not see creation as real. It happens as a result of ignorance being super-imposed on reality. This all comes down to a failure to understand that the roots of existence are personal not impersonal. God is the supreme I AM when considered from the angle of life itself and he is Father when considered from the angle of created beings. We have both aspects within us and it is a gross error to think that one (the created aspect) can ever be dispensed with. It is a fundamental part of what we are and the very reason for there being something rather than nothing in the first place.

The error of advaita is that it thinks that reality is the absolute alone when it is the absolute and the relative together with eternal interaction between them. This is the Trinity.

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