Friday, 17 February 2017

The Incompatibility of Advaita and Christianity

Following on from the earlier post here are some comments I made elsewhere on the subject of advaita and Christianity and how they cannot be seen as two aspects of one truth. Either one or the other is true, they cannot both be correct, and, in fact, it is advaita that is the false doctrine. It may contain certain insights, and it is undoubtedly very tempting for intellectuals, but ultimately it is a false trail.

You cannot square Christianity with advaita Vedanta and keep the integrity of both. That is, square Christianity with advaita as it really is not as it is in the romantic interpretations of Christians who want to mix it with their Christianity and keep the best of both worlds. The problem is you just can’t do that with advaita since it absorbs and relegates to the relative plane anything you try to reconcile to it. Your Christianity will become just a provisional thing to be transcended when you are wiser. Fundamentally it’s part of the world of maya.

The fact is that advaita denies the reality of the individual soul and of God in any real and personal sense. You can’t escape that. There are various mental contortions by advaitins who seek to have their cake and eat it, usually something along the neither real nor unreal line, but, when all is said and done, advaita is exclusively monistic and does not allow any true existence to creation or anything in it. Hence, to be intellectually consistent, you cannot follow advaita and believe that God is love.  Love requires duality. It requires a personal God and for humans to have real individuality. Even if there is union underlying it, as of course there is, if love is to be real then duality has also to be real. And if love is not completely real then it's not real at all.

That’s why Ramanuja rejected Sankara’s one-sided and highly selective interpretation of the Upanishads. Reality is far subtler and more wonderful than the simplistic version of it propounded by Sankara who seems, hagiography aside, to have been primarily an intellectual motivated by the attempt to defend the Vedas against Buddhism. He therefore incorporated bits of Buddhism into his system, the better to fight it. I really don’t think that people like Swami Abhishiktananda*, and the Traditionalists who followed Frithjof Schuon, understood what advaita is actually saying. Seduced by the apparent profundity of its non-negotiable doctrine of oneness they sought to blend it into views they already had, not appreciating that if you took it on its own terms it just demolished these, rejecting anything else as a halfway house to be left behind once true knowledge dawned. The Trinity cannot be reconciled to advaita. In fact, it is precisely what saves us from the illusion of advaita or any kind of monism.

Some people say that advaitins are just describing reality from the point of view of their experience of it and this is as legitimate as anybody else's description since we are trying to describe something that is beyond description. It's not that simple. Advaitins, following Sankara, do think that what they are describing is the ultimate. It's not an experience of it or an approach to it. It is it. They would say any experience is still part of duality and they would also say that Christianity is part of duality and therefore still rooted in ignorance. So from the point of view of advaita Christianity, or any approach to God in which there is any kind of distinction between Man and God or any chance of a real relationship between them, would always be inferior to it.  I'm sure there is a state in which everything is experienced as one with no division and no centre anywhere. But I think this entry into the undifferentiated ground of being is a lesser state than the union in love with God as described by some Christian mystics, though there may be certain similarities. But the differences are crucial. And the main one is that in the highest Christian state individuality is preserved. That is not the case in advaita which thinks itself the highest realisation but is, in my opinion, a lesser understanding because it doesn't see that unity and multiplicity are both true. Christians would say that God created the world and saw that it was good. Advaitins don't really believe in God, creation or even goodness. That’s a pretty fundamental difference and that's why for me advaita is not that different to atheism.The only God it allows is one who is still part of the world of make believe.

I can see why people might think you can reconcile advaita and Christianity because there is oneness at the bottom of them both but it is a very different sort of oneness in that the oneness of advaita allows for no differentiation at all in ultimate reality while Christianity, because of the Trinity, does. This incidentally is much more in line with our intuitions and experience of how reality actually is and while that is not conclusive nor should it be rejected without good reason.

If advaita were true then this world would be pointless. One of its weaknesses is that it has no explanation for the world so basically dismisses it.  It also restricts the absolute to a static, impersonal, inactive, relationless consciousness devoid of potentiality and agency which raises the question how does anything ever arise from that?  I think it is illogical too which contradicts its main claim to intellectual superiority. The reason I say this is because it restricts reality to the absolute alone instead of seeing that reality is the absolute and the relative interacting together. Becoming without being is impossible but being without becoming is nothing. So while there is a hierarchical relationship between them the relative is an essential part of the absolute, without which it could not be known. And this is why I say that non-duality, if taken literally and at its own estimation, strips the world of beauty, goodness and love. 

I have felt the need to make these points because many people nowadays mistakenly think that non-duality is a more advanced spiritual understanding than theistic religion, specifically Christianity. In fact, the opposite is the case. A monism in which there is no differentiation at all, in which everything is reduced to the impersonal One, is actually a much more intellectually limited concept.  Your individuality is real. Without it you could know nothing. You would be nothing. Yes, you must transcend exclusive identification with it. No, you do not reject it or come to know it as unreal. Your true being is in God but that can only be refracted through your individual being and in that process there is love.

Beware if you want to reconcile advaita (or any kind of non-duality) with Christianity as it eats up everything it comes into contact with. You will be left with advaita but no Christianity not to mention no self, no love, no beauty, no goodness. Advaita takes the ground mystical state as the whole of reality instead of seeing it as part of reality which can't just be reduced to its fundamental tone. You might say that it takes the via negativa as the whole instead of seeing that without the living God of the via positiva that is incomplete and truly, eternally, void. Reality comprises both as does Christianity.

* A Christian monk who tried to blend Christianity with non-dualistic Hinduism


Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for this.

It certainly seems common sense 'logic' that both can't be ultimately true.

If the aim is to be absorbed-into the One, then you cannot have a relationship (of love) with the One at the same time - because there is nothing to have a relationship.

From my perspective, I found it difficult to understand love - and how it is a 'unity' of two separates - I think this is why love must be the primary metaphysical concept - it cannot be explained in terms of anything else.

How would you summarise the position of Dom Bede Griffiths - a Christian (Benedictine) monk (and friend of CS Lewis) who led a life that was increasingly Hindu.

Do you think he was a Hindu flavoured Christian or vice versa?

And did he properly understand both religions?

William Wildblood said...

I first began to question advaita when I asked myself what the point of it was. I mean, why would anything come about in the first place and why would God create just to get back to where he was at the beginning which would be the case if everything is absorbed into the One. Advaita does accept a God of sorts called Isvara but ultimately he is part of the world of ignorance and not the same as the Christian or Western concept of God at all. For advaita God has no purpose and there is no real meaning to this world and I just don't accept that.

I think it boils down to the fact that for non-duality the Impersonal is higher and more real than the personal and I used to think that was true just because it seems more philosophically right. But now I don't because it would mean that the personal was not really real and nor was love. Revelation trumps philosophy! And as far as I understand it, the teaching of Christ is that God is Love and therefore he is a Person, must be. The guides who spoke to me emphasised that as well and it is also seems right intuitively. Actually I don't think that advaita is even part of the Hindu mainstream. It's become so popular I believe because it appeals to the intellect and also because it enables people to dispense with God which a lot of modern people seem to want to do even when they want a spiritual life. I think this is a symptom of the egotism of the fallen consciousness. Let's eat the meal without thanking the cook.

The Swami I mentioned in the post was a kind of forerunner of Bede Griffiths. He was a French monk who went to India to deepen his mystical experience. The problem I have with this is that mystical experience is not necessarily spiritual truth. India is great for mysticism and Westerners who go there and have some insight into the mystical often think they have discovered the profoundest of truths. But I think they mistake the contemplative, passive side of God for all of him whereas he is both active and passive and we have to try to know him in both modes.

Also, and more important, we are not born into this world to experience mystical bliss. We can do that in heaven. We are here, I believe, to correct the flaws in our nature and develop a proper sanctity. Mystics often try to escape their spiritual responsibilities by retreating or trying to retreat into blissful states of consciousness.

Which is all a long way of saying that, from my perspective, the Christians who went to India and tried to combine their Christianity with Hinduism, like Bede Griffiths, were well meaning but probably mistaken. Hinduism certainly has mystical elements that can seem very appealing to a religion that has become dry as Christianity has, but there are deeper truths in Christianity than any other religion and these are revealed in Christ who was not a world retreater but fully engaged with the world.

I met Bede Griffiths once and I liked him but I did not feel he was a person of great spiritual insight. Maybe what you say is correct and he did not fully understand either Hinduism or Christianity. I mean intellectually he did, but he did not, as serious spiritual seekers of his generation often did not, see that they are not really saying the same thing. He belonged to a generation that wanted to see all religions as essentially the same but though that might superficially be the case I don't think it is true in a deeper sense. Maybe he was a transitional figure.

William Wildblood said...

By transitional figure I mean that he was someone who helped show there is common ground between the religions whereas before his time that was not so much appreciated. But focussing on the common ground tends to gloss over the very real differences that there are not only between religions but within them too. The mystical state of oneness with the Divine might be seen as common to all religions but having that as your goal is prioritising consciousness and I think the transformation of consciousness is almost a side issue or extra benefit of true spirituality which is really to do with the transformation of character, i.e. in Christian terms becoming more Christ-like. Mystics put the cart before the horse and many of them desire heaven more than they love God but it is the love of God that marks out a real Christian or spiritual person for that matter. And that means being prepared to suffer rather than seeking mystical bliss which will come later as and when God decides.