Advaita and Christianity

Prashant Sharma psharma at BUPHY.BU.EDU
Mon Apr 3 02:03:34 CDT 2000

On Sun, 2 Apr 2000, jkcowart at wrote:

> ----------------------
> On Mon, 27 Mar 2000 17:16:37 -0800, J. Kingston Cowart
> wrote:
> >>Prof. Vempenny introduces his "Dialogical Method" which
> >>operates on the "conviction that no religion possesses the
> >>truth totally and exclusively, that every religion has enough
> >>wealth to enrich other religions, and that every religion is
> >>worthy of love and respect."  He states that his method is
> >>"more love-centered than knowledge-centered" and that
> >>it "lays more emphasis on right attitude than right logic."
> >>(Quotes are from the Prologue.)
> At 07:30 PM 04/02/2000 -0400, Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian
> responded:
> >I have not read the book, but this is the first thought which
> >comes to my mind. Since Prof. Vempeny has concluded that
> >there is some good from all religions that the others can learn,
> >he is superior to every teacher of every religion since he has
> >sifted out the chaff from the grain in all religions. So theoreti-
> >cally, the grain from all religions could be combined to produce
> >a super religion, which would be better than all existing reli-
> >gions!
> I think perhaps we can forgive the professor inasmuch as he has
> already confessed to forming his opinions on the basis of love
> rather than logic.  Moreover, reductio ad absurdum yields only
> a specious logic in any case.
> Let's face it:  Advaita has no competitors.  What is true cannot
> be made untrue nor even threatened by the limitations of indi-
> vidual (mis)understanding.  In the Absolute, there is no know-
> ledge, but while awaiting moksha might one not learn some-
> thing worth while from one who sees other's systems with the
> eyes of love?
> Brahman, is without qualities, but where qualities arise in the
> world of appearance is not love the highest -- especially that
> love which is not attached to one's own position?
> Walk far enough in the other direction and we end up with war.
> There have been (and there still are) so many of those over reli-
> gion already.  I, for my part, will not take the cudgel to someone
> who actually reaches out with love toward religions other than
> his own.

   The conflict that you are talking about is really a dispute arising
from religious education that has to be resolved philosophically. Let me
summarise the the prevailing views (and they have been written about in the various
emails on this subject) and then give an alternative.

(i) Confessionalism, according to which one can understand religion only
from within its system of beliefs.

(ii) Non-confessionalism (or secularism), according to which beliefs of
various religions need not be true or false.

(iii) Experientialism, wherein instead of learning about religion in their
own terms, people should learn what religion in general has to offer to
help them understand their own experience.

There are problems with each of these approaches. The first one is a
fundamentalist approach which is isolatory and gives no meaning to other
religions. The second gives religion no positive part to play in society,
since it states the goals of "religion" as irreconcilably different from
the goals of education (which is to help people gain an understanding of
the world around them and gain skills to contribute productively to
society). It is also a position which takes a relativist view of the
subject, i.e. a philosophical view which rejects all absolute truth-claims
on the grounds that any truth-claim can be doubted. This position,
however, involves making another truth claim (the position itself!), so is
logically flawed. Relativism also has the flaw that it tends to be
accompanied in modern society by nihilism and consumerism, a feeling of
emptiness until we can get the next fix. If human happiness is of value
relativism works against it.
Infact, confessionalism has also created relativists since most people do
not believe in what they have been taught and been alienated from the idea
of truth as a result.
 The third approach actually questions the foundationalist theory of
knowledge of all the other theories and substitutes a constructivist one
(one has to actively construct a picture of what he/she takes to be the
truth in terms of beliefs and values, rather than receiving certainties
from on high). There is a fundamental philosophical conflict between
constructivism and the strongly foundationalist religions, since any
attempt to select from their beliefs and practices and construct something
new is bound to conflict with this foundationalism.
        I think that an alternative view is to see religion as *wisdom*,
much as experientialism does. This means that religious tradition is seen
as a storehouse of the realisations which human beings have had about
truth, value and trasforming life positively. The contents of this
storehouse are to be discovered and utilised for oneself. Hence, although
some of the claims made by religious traditions may turn out to be true,
we only discover them to be true (or false) by trying them out on a
provisional basis. This approach is not relativist because it doesnot rule
out the possibility of truth -- indeed it actively seeks it. This is
fundamentally an Advaitic/Buddhist approach, where philosophy is seen as
a way of life and not just an intellectual exercise. I believe that the
lives of many saints in the advaitic tradition are a clear example of this


Prashant Sharma.

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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