07 July 2010

Theology or Consciousness

Philip Goldberg makes the case that Eastern religions are more amenable to science. Western religion, he implies, relies more on unprovable theological constructs to bolster its claims. 

"Religion comes into conflict with science when it is defined by unprovable claims that can be dismissed as superstitions, and when it treats as historical facts stories that read like legends and myths to non-believers...
He goes on to outline a brief 20th century history of eastern sages collaborating with western scientists to forge a science of consciousness.  
Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.

The interaction of Eastern spirituality and Western science has expanded methods of stress reduction, treatment of chronic disease, psychotherapy and other areas. But that is only part of the story. Hindu and Buddhist descriptions of higher stages of consciousness have expanded psychology's understanding of human development and inspired the formation of provocative new theories of consciousness itself. Their ancient philosophies have also influenced physicists, among them Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who read from the Bhagavad Gita at a memorial service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his landmark TV seriesCosmos, Carl Sagan called Hinduism the only religion whose time-scale for the universe matches the billions of years documented by modern science."
He concludes by exhorting western religions to follow the same path
The relationship between science and Eastern spiritual traditions -- which many prefer to think of as psychologies -- is still in its infancy. In recent years, the Dalai Lama has carried the ball forward, hosting conferences and encouraging research. Western religions would do well to emulate this history. Their historical and faith-based claims conflict with empirical science and probably always will; but to the extent that their practices directly impact human life, they can be treated as testable hypotheses.
This article caught my eye because I have always wondered about the conceptual differences between the Abrahamic religions, and the great eastern religions, specifically Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. These eastern religions also have theological systems, myths, recorded miracles, etc., but the emphasis has always seemed to me to be more about the experience and less about having the proper set of beliefs. Or maybe that's just the westernized version of Eastern religion, in which the author uses as a reference. In either case, it has always seemed most natural to me to approach spirituality as an exercise of consciousness. To the degree that I conceptualize God at all, it is as the most supreme consciousness that is universal and independent of any individual's capacity to manifest it. But this, as with any belief, is provisional and more instrumental than anything else. When I pray, I find it hard to believe that I am praying to someone (God) who can hear what I am saying and will respond to my requests. It makes much more sense for me to dive right in and experience the prayer, as a form of guided meditation, regardless of the supernatural implication. In other words, I have problems with the dualistic frame of thought that seems to take precedent in the majority of the Abrahamic religious traditions. 

The reason I became a Baha'i was that, when I read the writings of Baha'u'llah, it felt like He was working on multiple levels at once, weaving insights that can appeal to all people, at any level of consciousness, from any background. Often, the language and concepts that are employed is very much along the lines of the Abrahamic tradition, particularly Islam. But throughout there is always a strain of poetry and mysticism that seems to disregard theology and breaks through the dichotomies of analytical thought. This is especially true in the "Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys", where he is writing in a Sufi-Islamic mode, but is distilling, in my view, many of the key insights from the East. He provides a bridge for us to follow, but at some point he leads us off that bridge and into the territory beyond.  

I do wish however that the writings made more explicit references to the eastern religions-the vast majority of the translated writings reference Islam, and then Christianity. The only references I have seen made by Baha'u'llah regarding the Eastern traditions are in the most recently translated book, "The Tabernacle of Unity", in response to a set of questions about certain Hindu beliefs. But even here he is commenting on a belief at somebody's request; he is not making reference to it himself to further an argument. Maybe as more writings are translated, we will started seeing more explicit reference to the Eastern religious traditions. If not, then I will just need to get over it. The important insights are there, if not their historical form.


  1. Back in the day I had a Buddhist roommate. He was an avid student of Korean Zen and quite well read in the Baha'i writings. One evening he was very excited by the section from Some Answered Questions entitled Soul, Spirit, and Mind. In his opinion it was a spot-on explanation of Buddhist teaching, especially the last parts of it. There aren't a lot of specific references to Eastern thought in the Baha'i writings. But the ideas are there. It just requires some digging to find them.

    One night we were discussing metaphors of light and reflection. As I remember, we concluded that the metaphors of each tradition were more descriptive of the other tradition's ideas than their own. Sadly, I can't remember the specifics.

    It seems to me one of the big reasons there's so much more conflict between science and religion in the west is the saturation of power politics into religious thought. Whenever states would clash, religious differences tended to get narrowed down to statements of belief (creeds) that one either ascribed to or didn't. Science can only advance where there is tolerance for nuance and innovation. So this environment was not conducive to warm relationships between scientists and state and church authorities. Even if Galileo couldn't care less rather the Eucharist comes about through transubstantiation or through consubstantiation, his ideas still challenged the authority of Rome. And it was respect for that authority that sustained the struggle against the Protestants. Thus, there was hostility on both sides. And that hostility continues to this day.

    This of course goes back further than the Reformation. Some people like to talk about the inherent tension between Athens and Jerusalem, the cities that represent two very different sources of western thought. I don't much care for it. But it is useful in many ways.

    I'm pretty weak on the political history of countries like India and China. But it seems to me that historically religion wasn't nearly as caught up in power struggles as in Europe and the Middle East. Thus, scientific inquiry has been a much more vibrant aspect of religious life. I'd like to hear the thoughts of someone more knowledge in the relevant fields.

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  3. I think your on to something that politics has played a big part in the comparative formation of religious institutions and theology. It's a good reason for the necessity of progressive revelation, the constant renewal of spiritual power to wash away the hollow shell of dogma

  4. Abdu'l-Baha said, "What hath transpired in a former time is past. Now is the time when we restrict our discussion to the Most Great Luminary of Peace and Salvation in the Age, to talk of the Blessed Perfection and to voice His exhortations, behests and teachings. Buddha and Confucius were kings in bygone ages who have disappeared. Their sovereignty in this world is ended and their cycle is completed." ref

    Shoghi Effendi said, "The Buddha was a Manifestation of God, like Christ, but his followers do not possess his authentic writings." ref

    My conclusion from these statement and my own investigation of Buddhism and Hinduism is that Buddha came over 1000 years after the previous Hindu Prophet, and Buddha himself reformed the traditions of the time. If we don't have a proper record of what Buddha taught, then we have an even smaller glimmering of the truth that came before Buddha, and He lived 2500 years ago. Chronologically, the previous Prophets were Muhammad, Jesus, then Buddha, and the size of their following and integrity of their teachings follow correspondingly. We're told that before the Baha'i Writings, the Qur'an has the highest level of integrity and preservation, not only in the historical documentation, but also in the closeness of its original language to that of today.

  5. Bryan, I have to disagree with your logic here.
    I don't think these two quotes explain why there are no references to the Buddha.

    The first quote implies that Islam and Christianity's cycles are also complete, so if this quote were making an argument for not mentioning the Buddha, then Baha'u'llah would also not have mentioned Christ and Mohammad. And clearly, by saying that the Buddha's sovereignty in this world is ended, he is not making the case that it doesn't still have an enormous influence in the lives of lots of people, about 350 million adherents by current estimations. Also, we don't have reference to any authentic writings of Christ either, yet Baha'u'llah still quotes his reported sayings in the gospels and makes clear that they are divinely inspired. Why wouldn't the same be true of the recorded sayings of the Buddha, if this were a criteria? And even if the recorded sayings were not divinely inspired, and we don't really have an idea of what the Buddha taught, then wouldn't Baha'u'llah have had the capacity to quote from him anyway, educated us, if he wanted to? Finally, Baha'u'llah repeatedly mentions prophets much older than the Buddha on numerous occasions, even though the integrity and preservation of their teachings would be much less. I mean, he mentions Adam, can't get much older than that (well you can, he also says there are manifestations before Adam).

    It is clear to me that He quotes and references prophets in the Abrahamic tradition almost exclusively...maybe because that is who is audience was aware of. All I was saying is that it kind of bothers me, but I need to get over it because the teachings are still universal in content.

  6. Part of the beauty of the Buddha's teachings is that there is a universal quality to them, but that it only comes to be known through practice. Progressive revelation dovetails nicely with these characteristics of his teachings.

    For example the third noble truth, the release from suffering, traverses cultural and historical limitations. It's just as much a noble truth now as it was when the Buddha first taught it. And, the release from suffering is only attained through walking the eightfold path. But attachment to any one way of walking that path is itself the suffering from which the walker is trying to be released. It makes sense then, that others would come along to guide the way towards the release from suffering. And furthermore, it highlights the spiritual need for independent investigation of reality.

  7. Jason, it could also be that writings referring to eastern religions/manifestations have not been translated yet. Like you said, "Tabernacle of Unity" was recently translated.

    I agree though, I don't think that the lack of mention of them so far is due to the fact that they are considered obsolete.

  8. I think there is a kind of shelf life where the religion remains viable, then it fades away in integrity. So Islam is the most recent, has the most followers, and has the most accurate text. Christianity is next, and Baha'u'llah said that whatever text was available to the Christians before Muhammad appeared must have been sufficient and accurate. We have original manuscripts of the gospels that date from the 4th century, so we can be relatively sure what was available to people. Buddha is next in line, and as you go back the historical record gets murkier and murkier. Even though Adam and Noah are mentioned, Baha'u'llah didn't use any scripture from those Prophets (that I know of). In reality, Buddhism was largely replaced in most of the world by Islam by the time of Baha'u'llah, even more so Hinduism.

  9. Although what He said is for everyone, Baha'u'llah was (almost?) always addressing specific individuals in his letters and even books. The quoting of older teachings (qur'an, hadith, gospel) was for the purpose of showing to the one who received His letter the unity of His teachings with the older ones. It made no sense to refer to (for instance) Buddha's teachings to those who never heard of them and/or did not accept their validity. The principle of unity of religion was made clear, though, and it seems it is up to us to let the teachings of Buddha and other Manifestations and their inspired followers to enrich our understanding of God's purpose.
    Warmest greetings, Martijn